Six travel agent tricks to watch out for when you book –

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Tonight, one of Britain’s biggest high street travel agents, Flight Centre, comes under the spotlight, as Dispatches on Channel 4 alleges it uses questionable practices to increase its profits. With more than 80 branches in the UK and a “lowest airfare guarantee” it has built up a strong reputation in the UK. But are customers really getting a fair fare?

Here, Telegraph writer Harry Wallop, who presents the programme, reveals not just some of the tricks Flight Centre allegedly has used, but other ploys that might trip up customers when booking a holiday.

1. Mark-ups

The travel agency business model works by the travel agent obtaining discounts from the airlines – because they buy so many flights. The travel agent then sells the flights to consumers with an added fee to cover its own costs. At the end of the day, the customer should get a similar price compared with booking directly with the airline, or quite often a better price. The airline can afford to make slim profits on air fares and bolster profits by selling extras such as insurance or car hire, for instance.

That’s the idea.

One of allegations that Dispatches levels at Flight Centre is that the company imposes mark-ups onto the flights at different levels depending on how savvy the customer is.

So, when I went into a Flight Centre and asked to book a flight to New York I was immediately asked if I had shopped around. Once it was established that I appeared to be a moderately savvy customer, I was offered £494 for a British Airways flight. This was cheaper than anything I could find online.

Dispatches also sent my 81-year-old mother-in-law into a Flight Centre on the same day, and asked her to book exactly the same flight to New York. She was offered £610 – 23 per cent more expensive.

Flight Centre has responded, saying this discrepancy was “extraordinary” and “one isolated example”.

2. Cancellations

Most airlines will allow you to cancel a flight in return for a fee.

Dispatches alleges that some consultants in Flight Centre branches tell customers that all flights are non-refundable, even if this is not the airline’s policy. This allows Flight Centre the opportunity to pocket all or most of the airline’s refund (minus the airline’s cancellation fee).

Flight Centre has more than 80 branches in the UK

Flight Centre has more than 80 branches in the UK


Flight Centre responded by saying: “The suggestion that ‘all fares are sold as non-refundable’ is completely incorrect and should not have been made by any Flight Centre employee.”

Customers should always read the small print before booking. If a travel agent claims it is non-refundable, it’s always worth checking with the airline itself.

3. Seat blocking

We are all used to the idea that prices rise as a plane fills up. The shrinking supply of seats at low prices encourages customers to hurry up and book. An undercover reporter at Flight Centre heard staff discussing manipulating this process to their advantage to encourage a customer who was dithering – over many days – whether to book a flight. They called it ‘seat blocking’.

The staff talked about going directly into an airline’s booking system to temporarily reserve seats in the cheapest price category. This would have the effect of pushing up the price of the remaining seats. The customer would see — when they either called Flight Centre later that day or looked online themselves – the price had risen. Flight Centre staff could then use this to pressurise a customer into booking a flight quickly. Either the agent could claim they had the last remaining cheap seat, or they could claim the price of seats might go up once again and that the customer needed to move quickly. In the later case, the travel agent, in theory, had the opportunity to pocket the difference between the lower reserved price and the new, higher price caused by seat blocking.

If the customers still does not book there was no cost to Flight Centre because the ‘seat blocking’ reservations were only temporary.

Flight Centre responded by saying that seat blocking was “entirely unacceptable and expressly against our company policy” and that they had emailed staff to remind them of this late last year.

4. Search engine cookies

Many consumers argue that airlines use search engine cookies (which allow any website to track what pages consumers have looked at) to their advantage. Namely, when you go onto an airline’s website to research flights to, say, Jamaica, it knows when you return a day later to book. Surprise, surprise – the price has gone up.

But is this true?

Nick Trend, Telegraph Travel’s Consumer Editor, is one of many to say there is no conclusive evidence this actually happens and that it is just an urban myth. Others point out that airlines’ booking systems are just not sophisticated enough to tweak prices when you return to book a particular flight.

Make sure you are booking from a legitimate website

Make sure you are booking from a legitimate website


If you are still in doubt, there is no harm in going into your internet broswer settings (it is sometimes under ‘advanced settings’) and pressing the ‘clear cookies/browsing history’ button before booking.

5. Price parity clauses

This week a House of Lords select committee report highlighted how online travel agents are not, as you might expect, providing more competition and lower prices.

This is because of the practice of “price parity clauses” enforced by online travel agents, which require hotels to always give the best room rates to websites. In effect, hotels can not undercut online travel agents.

The report said: “A major hotel chain, which asked to remain anonymous, explained that the insistence of online travel agents (OTA) on including price parity clauses in their contracts meant that hotels cannot offer a lower price direct to the consumer, even though when selling direct they don’t have to pay a significant commission to the OTA.”

Consumers should try going the old-fashioned route: picking up the phone and calling the hotel directly. You might find this gets you the best deal.

6. Fake airline websites

Is that really Air India’s website? Or a clever imitation website?

Earlier this month, the City of London Police’s National Fraud Intelligence Bureau found that British consumers were ripped off to the tune of £12 million last year through a variety of scams when booking travel. The most common was simply booking through a fake website set up by criminals.

Many consumers did not report the crime because they were too embarrassed.

City of London Police Commander Chris Greany said: “When booking a holiday it is vitally important you take your time and follow a number of basic checks designed to protect you falling victim to a fraud.

“These include researching the name of the company online you are considering using and ensuring it is a member of a recognised trade body.”

Six travel agent tricks to watch out for when you book –