A new report has revealed that a number of holiday websites are advertising cheap flight deals that suddenly become much more expensive when you try to book. The newspaper investigated headline bargain flights, and discovered that they used a number of tricks to boost the price by as much as 30%. It means that many of the five million people who use online travel agents every year may be paying over the odds.
The study was carried out by Money Mail, which used Opodo and eDreams for its searches. It discovered that in some cases, the price simply changed when you clicked through from the initial search.
They also found some flight companies used a card trick, so that the cheapest deals were only available if you used Visa Entropay - a pre-paid card that costs £4.95 for every £100 loaded onto it. If you want to use any other card, there's an additional fee that pushes the price up by almost £50 in some cases. In one search, the debit card fee added 30% to the total flight price.
It added that some online travel agents set up websites that use the colours and style of the airlines' web pages, which may make people think they are booking direct, but which often charge more than the airline itself. One example it quoted was ryanair.edreams.com.
The Mail said the aviation regulator was investigating the tactics. A spokesperson for eDreams Odigeo told them: "We aim to provide best-in-class websites which offer consumers the widest possible flight choice, at the lowest prices available. We take the CAA's concerns very seriously and will continue to cooperate with them to address the findings of their investigation."
A problem for years
A separate investigation by The Sun found a flight on eDreams from Gatwick to Malaga was initially advertised at £65.16 (cheaper than the easyJet price of £66.99). However by the end of the booking price it was £89.95 - £22.96 more than booking direct.
It also found a flight from Stansted to Malta with Cheapoair, initially quoted at £68 (a penny more expensive than booking direct with Ryanair). By the end of the booking process it was £23 more expensive than booking direct. Travel review sites such as Tripadvisor are also full of warnings about these tricks from the likes of eDreams and Opodo - from those who have fallen foul of them.
Anyone who has ever tried to hunt down a cheap flight online will know that these tactics are just part of a broader picture of murky approaches employed by online travel agents. An AOL investigation into cheap flights hunted for elusive bargain flights to Florida during the Easter holidays. The cheapest initial prices quoted on searches started at £700, and usually required a phone call to book. Seven phone calls to separate company later, not one of the flights was available at the quoted price.
What can you do?
If you want to be sure of getting cheap flights, there are two sensible approaches. If you're looking for a simple fare, you can often get the cheapest possible flight by booking direct with the airline. You can use this in conjunction with an app like Hopper, which will let you know whether the price being quoted by the airline is likely to go up or down before you fly.
If you are looking for something more complicated, or you need something cheaper than the price quoted by the airline, you need to use a specialist travel agent - ideally one like travelcounsellors.co.uk who work from home and therefore don't have the same kind of overheads to meet as a big high street agent.
You can talk to them about your requirements, and they will explain the slight tweaks that will bring the price down - such as other airports nearby, lesser-known stop-overs, and the best time to fly. They can also time their search for the optimum date and time of day to snap up prices at the cheapest possible point.
But what about you? Have you struggled to book cheap flights online? Let us know in the comments.