Travel and Buying Holidays Online
Our page on Online Shopping and Payments discusses some general principles about e-commerce, and buying online. However, there is one purchase that is worth looking at separately: buying a holiday. This is qualitatively different from many other e-commerce purchases because it is both significantly more expensive, and often a one-off.
Many of us are now booking our holidays online, because it can be significantly cheaper than the ‘real world’ alternatives. However, this can also turn out to be a false economy when things go wrong. What’s more, the sheer cost involved in a holiday means that travel is an attractive area for fraudsters, and some people have found that their airline tickets never arrived, or the beautiful villa turned out not to exist.
This page discusses what you need to know to book safely online, and how you can avoid falling victim to fraud.
Where to Book Online
There are several options available for booking holidays online.
When most people talk about booking travel online, they usually mean through one of the so-called online travel agencies, or OTAs, such as Expedia or Travelocity.
These sites allow you to book a whole package: flights, hotel, and even activities. This has made online booking much easier, and encouraged people to dip their toes in the water. However, a study in 2015 found that usage of online travel agencies was dropping rapidly. The percentage of people using them for research had dropped from over 80% to just over 50% in a year, and the percentage using them regularly had fallen from around one third to just 13% in the same period. This suggests that the experience is not always satisfactory, which is borne out by complaints websites.
It is also possible to put together your own holiday by booking directly with airlines, hotels or villas and car rental firms.
Sites like Airbnb have made finding accommodation much easier. Booking direct with airlines gives you an extra level of flexibility, because it is usually much easier to rebook if necessary. However, you may find that if one bit breaks down, it is harder to amend the others to match. You also need to be careful to take out your own insurance and check that it covers everything.
Finally, comparison websites such as kayak.com allow you to compare prices via online travel agencies or flight booking sites.
You can then book direct for the best deal.
Common Problems When Booking Holidays Online
Before you consider booking a holiday online, it is wise to be aware of the potential pitfalls. The most common, according to several consumer and travel advice websites, are:
The hotel or airline refusing to honour the deal
Many people are not aware that hotels are not obliged to honour deals published by websites. This means that you can turn up at your hotel thinking that you have paid, and have the management refuse to accept the rate that you paid or ask you to pay more. This may be, for example, because it is a busy weekend locally, and they are charging significantly more for a room.
Similarly, the airline may refuse to sell you a ticket on that flight at that rate, and you will be rebooked onto another flight—probably at a more unsociable hour. When you try to change it, you will be told that you can only do so if you pay more.
At that point, you don’t really have much choice except to pay the additional amount, because getting a refund could be very difficult.
Not being able to change or amend the booking
Sometimes, the reason that a deal is particularly good is because it is not transferable. You may therefore find that if your flight is cancelled, and you need to rebook the hotel, you cannot do so without paying a significant amount extra. Similarly, should you wish to amend the flight to travel with a friend, this may not be possible.
However, you may well find that the airline or hotel is at liberty to change your booking at will.
Not buying what you thought you were buying
It is not always entirely clear what you are buying online, especially with a very good deal. This may lead to problems later, especially if something changes.
For example, you may think that you have bought a business class flight. However, if the flight is cancelled and you are rebooked, you may find that you are in economy, because what you actually bought was an economy class ticket with automatic upgrade. Not a problem on the original flight—but not transferable.
Similarly, a cheap rate may mean that you do not have access to certain facilities. For example, you may end up paying to park, or having to park elsewhere.
Some people have also found that they were liable for additional taxes or fees at the airport.
The website was fake or a scam
Holidays are a big purchase. They are therefore a tempting target for fraud—and unfortunately, a lot of people have found this out the hard way, when their airline tickets didn’t arrive, or when they followed up their villa booking only to discover that the owner knew nothing about them. Some had only paid a deposit, but others have lost the whole price of their holiday.
Even if the website is genuine, there may be a hitch between website and the hotel or airline, and your booking may not have been received.
Protecting Yourself Against Problems
You can protect yourself against fraudulent websites by being aware and checking the website carefully. Using a credit card, or a payment services provider, also provides an additional level of protection and may mean that you can get your money back even if the fraudsters themselves cannot be identified.
There is more advice about spotting fraudulent websites in our page on Online Shopping and Payments.
You can, and should always, check the terms and conditions carefully before you buy. These sections of a website are not the most exciting, and it is tempting to skip past them and just tick the box. However, reading the small print carefully could save you a lot of money later if you decide that the product offered is not quite what you want.
You should always take out good travel insurance, to cover you against problems. Again, it is worth reading the small print, and checking carefully to ensure that it will cover you fully.
However, it is actually quite difficult to protect yourself effectively against many of these issues, because they are an intrinsic part of using online travel agencies.
Like the ‘no frills’ airline, these agencies sell their products on price, and price alone. Their customer service is often sketchy to non-existent—because you are not paying enough to enable them to provide that service.
You have to accept that there is an element of ‘you get what you pay for’.
If you are not prepared to accept those risks, then you may have to pay more for your holiday.
As always, if something looks too good to be true then it probably is.
The Best Option
If you're confident and really set on booking your own travel, then go ahead.
However, if you are not, then the best option may be to go to an independent travel agent.
They will be able to do the research and help you put together your own holiday—and then do all the booking online for you. This way, you avoid having to do all the research, but you get the cheaper prices that come from online booking. You will also have the benefit of their knowledge of resorts, travel firms and locations. Finally, you will have the security of knowing that there is someone available on the end of a telephone or text message if something goes wrong—even if it is only your taxi not turning up at the airport.