April 2015 eBulletin: holidays and third party booking websites
As April draws to a close, many of us are looking ahead to summer and quite possibly taking a trip abroad. A significant number of consumers make use of third party booking websites in order to book flights and accommodation. These websites are a useful resource for consumers, allowing them to compare offers before making a decision. However, if something goes wrong, it isn’t always clear who the consumer should contact.
This month’s eBulletin looks at tips for using third party websites when making travel arrangements. Our consumer query of the month relates to cancelling a flight booking while this month’s success story involves a consumer who was overcharged by a third party site for a card payment.
If you are experiencing problems with a purchase from another European country, please contact us on 01 8797 620 or click here. For information on your consumer rights in Europe, please see the “Popular Consumer Topics” section of our website.
Press and Communications Officer
Third party booking websites
Third party websites are so described because they act as a kind of intermediary between consumers and service providers (e.g. airlines, hotels) and facilitate the booking. However, generally, the contract for the service is formed between the consumer and service provider directly and the website is not a party to it. This means that in the event of a problem with the booking, the consumer would usually have to make contact with the service provider directly, a situation which can cause confusion.
The following are some useful tips for those looking to book a trip through a third party site –
- Consult the terms and conditions of the booking website. In many cases, the contract for the service (such as the flight, provision of accommodation, etc.) is formed directly between the consumer and the provider of the service. If this is the case, this information should be clearly specified in the website’s terms.
- Read the terms and conditions of the service provider, as these will also apply to the booking. Consumers may wish to pay particular attention to information on payment and any cancellation rights. For instance, if booking accommodation, it is advisable to check if the rate is non-refundable or if there is a possibility to cancel.
- Carefully research the website. Always ensure to check for full contact details, including a geographical address, and verify these with additional internet searches. Such searches may also turn up any negative feedback left by other consumers.
- Check the name and URL of the website in the browser address bar. ECC Ireland has received queries from consumers who understood they were booking directly with a service provider, only to subsequently realise that they had used a booking website which looked similar to that of the service provider. Some third party sites may rank more highly in search engines due to sponsored search results, so it is important to ensure you are on the website you’re looking for.
- Be wary of any requests by a service provider to complete a reservation outside the booking platform of the third party website. This is sometimes a sign of a potential scam and may leave consumers unprotected if something goes wrong.
As most third party websites act as an intermediary only for bookings, they do not generally fall within the remit of the EU Package Travel Directive. In order for a booking to be considered a package within the meaning of this legislation, it must –
- Be pre-arranged and sold at an inclusive price by a travel agent or tour operator
- Cover a period of at least 24 hours or include an overnight stay
- Comprise at least two of the following three components:
- Other tourist services which make up a significant part of the cost and package (e.g. guided tours)
The Package Travel Directive provides for greater protection for those holidaymakers who have booked a package holiday. At present, trips arranged through third party booking websites do not benefit from the same level of protection.
However, after a number of consultations, the EU institutions recently agreed to review the provisions of the Package Travel Directive. This is to take into account changes in the way European consumers book their holidays, as research suggests that bookings through third party sites now account for up to 118 million trips per year. The main changes envisaged are outlined here – however, the exact text of the new legislation has yet to be agreed. The last “trialogue” meeting between the European Commission, Council, and Parliament took place on 22nd April last, but consensus has not yet been reached.
Consumer Query of the Month
I recently booked a flight ticket using a third party booking website. However, a commitment has come up and I won’t be able to travel on the dates originally planned. I’m not sure whether to contact the airline or the website I used to make the booking. Can you advise me?
Generally, when consumers book through a third party website, the contract is formed directly with the service provider. In this case, that would mean your contract was formed with the airline. If you wish to cancel the ticket or make any changes to your booking, you should first make contact with the airline itself. Please note however that the booking website is generally considered to act as an “agent” in that it processes the booking and liaises with the airline. It is not uncommon, therefore, for the airline to request that any amendments be made through the agent. Further, please be advised that any potential right to be refunded for the cancelled ticket would depend on the terms applicable to the particular fare. It may be that the airline charges a fee for cancelling the ticket, or it may not be possible to seek a refund at all.
We would therefore advise you to, firstly, consult the fare rules applicable to your ticket to see if any changes are permitted to the booking. If so, you should contact the airline directly and indicate that you wish to amend your booking. If the airline refers you to the agent, you should submit your request to the booking website. It may be possible to rebook your flights for different dates subject to the payment of a fee. However, if you wish to cancel the booking outright, it may not be possible to seek a refund if the fare is non-refundable. Most airlines do not issue refunds for cancelled tickets, although consumers may seek to be reimbursed for any government taxes or charges (these are payable subject to the passenger actually flying, so if you do not fly you should not be charged for them). Please note that certain airlines charge a fee for the refund of such taxes and charges and this may absorb the amount of any refund.
An Irish consumer booked a flight using a third party website based in Greece. Upon receiving his booking confirmation, he noticed that the amount charged came to almost 200 EUR more than the price indicated at the time of booking. He inspected the breakdown of charges and found that this amount had been charged as a transaction fee. As taxes and charges had been included in the advertised fare, this seemed inordinately high for a booking fee. The consumer contacted the website through which he made the booking. However, he was advised that the price in question was the price he had accepted and as such he could not seek a refund. The consumer then contacted ECC Ireland and further assistance was sought from our sister office in Greece. The trader was reminded that under EU legislation, air fares as published must include all applicable taxes, charges and fees which are foreseeable at the time of booking. Accordingly, the price shown to the consumer should have included the transaction fee of 199.63 EUR from the beginning of the online booking process. The trader was further reminded that under the Consumer Rights Directive, traders are prohibited from imposing payment card charges which exceed the actual cost of offering that means of payment. Following our intervention, the consumer was refunded 199.63 EUR.
If you want more information on this or any other cross-border consumer issue, please contact us on 01 8797 620 or go to www.eccireland.ie.