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Seven travel booking traps to avoid

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The OFT has issued a warning about misleading practices some holiday companies use to trick travellers into spending more cash. Money journalist Neil Faulkner highlights the traps to look out for.

A decade ago, headlines warned about misleading half-price or buy-one-get-one-free holiday deals.

Last year it was VAT bills being hidden by major hotel chains.

Now, the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) has issued a 40-page document full of warnings to the travel industry on a whole host of misleading practices.

Unfair charges

When airlines or travel operators don't include all charges or taxes up-front in an advert or brochure, or on a website, the OFT considers this unfair, even if there are disclaimers in the small print.

And when it comes to card fees, businesses aren't allowed to charge more than their costs for processing card payments, which means these costs should be low.

The OFT is also concerned about optional extras being pre-selected when travellers buy flights and holiday packages online – they shouldn't be.

So always double-check the final cost of a flight or holiday before clicking the button to book.

Hidden terms and conditions

The OFT seems to be concerned about airline terms and conditions being buried in hard-to-find pages of some holiday companies’ websites.

These should be available early on and easy to find.

If you can't see the small print at the start of the booking process, a quick Google search is usually fruitful.

Middlemen costs

Websites, travel agents and tour operators should follow the same rules as airlines.

I once clicked to buy a flight advertised on a flight-comparison site, but it wasn't available after all.

Instead of making this clear, the site discreetly changed the flight in a corner of the web page to a new one which flew at a different time.

It was cheaper, because it flew at an inconvenient time of day – which enabled the service to hide its fee within the cost of the first flight it showed me.

Always double-check flight costs and details with the airline and don't book through agents and websites unless you're sure you won't be charged extra.

Know who you're flying with

An agent or website must usually reveal the name of your airline immediately - instead of simply stating it's a budget airline, for example.

Also, travel agents should not prevent their customers from contacting airlines, the OFT warns.

Package holidays

Advertising rules around package holidays are not as strict, so if booking a package deal always ask for a full breakdown of costs, in writing, as early as possible.

The OFT wants to defend people from operators who structure packages to hide or restrict travellers' protection under the Package Travel Regulations (PTRs).

The PTRs, among other things, set out what operators must do if there's a significant alteration before departure and, in some circumstances, entitle the consumer to transfer bookings to someone else.

The rules also make operators liable for their packages, even if the actual services are carried out by another company.

False one-day sales

The OFT's recent guidance warns of promotions that falsely appear to require immediate action.

For example, when an airline offers a one-day flight sale for £15, when really it offers such flights regularly.

This practice was specifically banned by law a few years ago, although lots of businesses in many industries continue to use it.

Less protection than you think

Finally, sometimes a holiday seller might write “fully ATOL protected” when in fact you'll only be part-compensated if that company goes bust.

Also, you may not have full protection if a package deal is sold in separate pieces – in fact it's misleading when operators call this a “package” at all, the OFT writes.

If you buy a flight, and a holiday seller knows that you want to create a package, it should state you have just one day to extend ATOL protection to other parts of your holiday.

Before booking this type of holiday, you should read more about what ATOL covers and the exceptions.

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Neil Faulkner

Neil Faulkner

Neil Faulkner waded his way through a mountain of claims as a paralegal before moving on to be an insurance consultant and claims manager. He is a long-term investor, and one-time property owner and landlord. He writes about property, investing, insurance, consumer issues, and helping people get out of debt misery.

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