Websites offering cheap flights are tempting for travellers looking for a bargain, but do they really offer the best deals?
Forget legroom and simple connections, some flyers just want to get from A(uckland) to B(erlin) as cheaply as possible. These travellers often seek their bargains online, where websites jostle to offer lower fares than the airlines. Do any actually offer better prices? We looked at the hidden extra costs of booking to find out.
What we did
Advertised flight prices don’t include booking fees, so travel websites make it challenging to shop around – unless you’re prepared to go through the booking process to see how much each tacks on.
So that’s exactly what we did for flights to Sydney and Los Angeles. We chose specific outgoing and return flights on our travel dates and searched booking websites BYOJet, Expedia, Flight Centre, Mix and Match, and Webjet. We also tracked prices on Skyscanner, which displays prices for multiple agents.
All sites offering a cheaper price than the airline’s advertised web price were recorded, as were all extra fees – from service and credit card fees to the cost of one checked bag (if not included) – charged by the booking site. Any additional charges for booking the flights through the airline’s website were also calculated.
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Enticed by an online advert, only to find that amazing deal vanished when you clicked through? Fake deals (which the retailer never intended to honour) to attract customers are known as “bait and switch” marketing.
On February 18, 19 and 20, Mix and Match advertised $1300 flights to London that weren’t available. There’s little excuse for a major travel agent to continue to promote a sold-out deal for so long.
House of Travel (which owns Mix and Match) says because of a technical error, the global booking system from which its website pulls prices was not updating regularly.
Mix and Match has advised the system operator of the delays. “We are thoroughly investigating … There [was] no intention on the part of Mix and Match to misrepresent or to mislead the consumer in any way.”
You might assume travel websites display every available route – but this isn’t always the case.
Mix and Match search results for flights from Auckland to Shanghai gave us deals on Cathay Pacific and Qantas (which had at least one stopover), but didn’t include China Eastern (which offered the cheapest fare to fly direct). The company says “the fares had been temporarily paused for reasons beyond our control”.
Fees for changes and cancellations
If you require changes once booked, you’ll have to pay the airline’s fees in addition to those of the travel website. Expedia was the only travel website we found that did not charge change and cancellation fees. It’s free to alter a Webjet booking online, but $50 by phone.
Some websites offer service packages. This means the website handles any travel amendments, cancellations and requests for special meals at no extra cost (though you still have to fork out the airline charges).
If you don’t purchase the package, and you or the airline later amend or cancel the travel, you’ll have to pay a separate administration fee.
For other travel websites, you’ll have to look for these charges in their frequently asked questions sections.
Some charge a set rate, no matter the amendment (such as BYOJet’s $140 per person amendment fee). Others vary – Flight Centre charges each passenger $125 to change and $350 to cancel long-haul international flights.
Don’t hit the confirm button until you’ve checked these service charges and any terms and conditions. These may make booking direct a better prospect, as you’ll only pay the airline fees.
If you’re eligible for a refund, this is a lengthier process when a third party is involved. Customers can wait months for their money back (whether they are at fault or not).
Flight Centre (which owns Aunt Betty and BYOJet) says although most of its refunds are processed within 72 hours, delays can be the fault of the airlines. According to eDreams, its service team processes most within a week.
Customers affected by cancelled flights can be shunted back and forth between the travel website and the airline, if neither takes responsibility for putting it right.
Getting help when things go wrong
Few customers imagine what may go wrong when they book their dream holiday but it’s best to consider the worst before you enter your credit card details.
Consumer members Steve and Diane Marshall booked a Christmas getaway to Europe with Lufthansa, departing Auckland and stopping by Frankfurt, Copenhagen and Oslo. The first leg was a code-share flight operated by Cathay Pacific.
When they checked in, Cathay Pacific told the family they held standby rather than confirmed tickets, despite their Lufthansa booking email listing the flight as confirmed. They managed to get 5 seats on the plane then discovered their request for a child’s gluten-free meal had gone astray, leaving their daughter hungry on the 11-hour journey.
Lufthansa said it’s investigating and sincerely apologises for any inconvenience.
If there’s an issue, it can be easier dealing directly with the airline than through an intermediary. Some travel agencies (such as Flight Centre) have emergency helplines, but others can be hard to get prompt responses from.
Any heads-up about rescheduled flights and other travel disruptions will be slower if it’s filtered through a third party. Though some have automated alert systems, with others, it costs extra to be notified of flight cancellations.
If the airline cancels a flight, customers who book directly are often able to reschedule their flight through the airline’s website but this option isn’t always available to those who have gone through a travel agent (even for events such as weather cancellations).
As an Air New Zealand frequent flyer, Consumer member Anny Dentener expected to be able to claim Airpoints after flying with the airline to Shanghai, only to be denied.
The fine print of her booking confirmation says the leg, as part of her journey to Amsterdam, is an Air France fare. Air New Zealand will only provide frequent flyer miles if you both fly with the airline and hold a ticket issued by either Air New Zealand or one of the partner airlines listed on its website (which Air France isn’t).
It’s not always easy to find which airline will issue your ticket when you’re comparing flights on a third-party travel website. Some, including Mix and Match, use a pop-up to notify customers frequent flyer rules may differ on code-share flights. Avid mile collectors may wish to book directly.
We’ve awarded the wooden spoon to Webjet’s “Booking Price Guarantee” fee, a $8.95 to $17.95 mandatory cost in addition to its service fee.
For this fee, Webjet promises if the advertised fare sells out while you’re booking, you’ll only pay the advertised price. It’s concerning you can’t opt out of this charge. Webjet’s guarantee also carries several caveats – you must complete your booking within 30 minutes and it’ll only cover a fare increase up to $1000.
We’ve been campaigning against sneaky fees such as this one.
Baggage rules vary
Flying with one airline on the way there and another on the way back can save you coin, but be careful you’re not stung by excess luggage charges.
The baggage rules are different for all airlines – and you’ll have to meet each and every restriction or face a penalty.
One cheap deal from Auckland to London involved 3 legs with Singapore Airlines, which allows a bag of up to 30kg. But the final Singapore to Auckland flight was on Air New Zealand, which won’t accept luggage weighing more than 23kg.
Our advice for booking your next flight:
- Use a combination of methods when searching for flights to find the best deal.
- While booking directly with an airline is usually cheaper online, using its call centres, sales outlets or airport locations can incur fees.
- Check the number of stops, time between connections, and trip duration.
- Check what luggage allowance is included in the fare.
- One-way fares can look great – but beware the ticket home could be costly.
- If using an online travel agent, check they’re a member of the Travel Agents Association of New Zealand (TAANZ). TAANZ will pay up to $250,000 for unticketed bookings if a member agency goes bust.