Online Travel: Click now, pay later

If it all goes wrong, who foots the bill for travel booked online? Simon Calder finds out
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The Independent Travel

The boarding pass said VIE and the destination board promised Vienna, but after flying around in low-altitude circles over Belgium for a while the captain announced a technical problem meant we would be heading back to STN. A 40-minute flight from Stansted to Stansted isn't my idea of a satisfying holiday, especially if there is an unusually plush hotel room waiting in the Austrian capital. But the fact that the Buzz flight had merely buzzed some Belgians before limping back to base was about to cost me a lot of money. It wasn't just the fare I had paid, though the airline disappeared before I had managed to get my cash back; I had also just discovered the first pitfall of buying travel online...

The boarding pass said VIE and the destination board promised Vienna, but after flying around in low-altitude circles over Belgium for a while the captain announced a technical problem meant we would be heading back to STN. A 40-minute flight from Stansted to Stansted isn't my idea of a satisfying holiday, especially if there is an unusually plush hotel room waiting in the Austrian capital. But the fact that the Buzz flight had merely buzzed some Belgians before limping back to base was about to cost me a lot of money. It wasn't just the fare I had paid, though the airline disappeared before I had managed to get my cash back; I had also just discovered the first pitfall of buying travel online...

HAVE YOU BOOKED A PACKAGE?

Buying a holiday that is, legally speaking, a package confers big benefits on the traveller. A city break that you have booked from a single source, which includes both travel and another element - such as a hotel room, or a rental car - is covered by the Package Travel Regulations. These require the company that put together the holiday to deliver what's promised, or compensate the traveller. In the case of my vanishing flight to Vienna, a tour operator would have had to take responsibility either for rearranging my trip without penalty, or for refunding my money.

In the case of package holidays that include a flight, the traveller gets even more protection: the Atol scheme ensures that in the event of the operator's financial failure, customers quickly get their cash back.

In comparison, those of us who book online have no protection. If you book each element yourself through a different provider, the only person who has to take responsibility when one part of the trip goes awry is you.

The trouble is: can you be certain when you have booked a package? If you buy each element through a website such as Lastminute.com, Expedia.co.uk or Thomson.co.uk, you have booked a package. But if you merely "click through", most popularly from a low-cost airline's website to an affiliated hotel or car rental company, you have a "split contract": separate deals with each party.

Suppose you click through from Ryanair to its car hire partner, Hertz, and rent a car at your flight destination. But come flight time, the plane is delayed or cancelled, which means you lose a day of your holiday. Even though you were led to the car hire firm's website by Ryanair, you haven't booked a package and the rental company has every right to insist that you pay in full.

THINK BEFORE YOU HIT THAT 'BUY NOW' BUTTON

Don't click until you are sure that you have bought what you thought you were buying. With no human interaction in the buying process, it is easy to blunder (and I speak as someone who has turned up at Luton airport for a flight that happened to be departing at Gatwick). The three "Ds" - departure airport, destination and date - might seem obvious enough. But very early morning flights can confuse and lead you to turn up 24 hours early - or, even worse, late.

Also, make sure you are not paying for things you do not need. A popular catch on travel websites is automatically to add insurance and require you explicitly to remove it. Many sites add credit-card surcharges that can be avoided by paying with a debit card. You should also be aware of the financial penalty should you need to change your booking. These can vary from zero or minimal in the case of ferry operators to 100 per cent for some airlines.

THE NAME OF THE GAME

It is your responsibility when buying travel online that the name on the booking matches the name on the passport. Airports this summer will be full of travellers who are outraged and disappointed - having just been told they cannot fly because of a mismatch. Typical examples include tickets in a woman's married name when her passport is in her maiden name; using a common short form (Tom for Thomas, for example); or a traveller who uses one of their middle names socially, but whose passport is in their full name.

These rules are being increasingly strictly interpreted by airline check-in staff, but are not (yet) applied for UK and Eurostar rail travel.

I AM NOT A NUMBER

Oh yes you are, at least as far as Ryanair is concerned. While British Airways and many other airlines are happy enough to accept your proof of identity and trace your flight booking using your name, the Irish no-frills airline insists that you produce the alpha-numeric booking reference as well. If you can't, you will be required to queue up at the ticket desk to obtain it. Hint: if time is running out, look at the flight manifest print-out on the check-in agent's desk; try to identify your name, and read the six-character code upside down.

PRINT BEFORE YOU DRIVE

Car-rental companies often use franchises, and sometimes there is a dispute with the owner-operator about what exactly you have booked. This is one occasion where a complete print-out could help you out.

PAYMENT GUARANTEED OR MADE?

When booking a hotel room, make sure you know whether your card number is being used merely as a guarantee or has been debited in payment for the room. Practices vary from one accommodation website to the next and there have been cases of guests paying twice.

'CONGRATULATIONS: YOU HAVE WON A FREE CARIBBEAN CRUISE/HOLIDAY IN WALT DISNEY WORLD/FIVE-STAR VACATION IN DUBAI'

Oh no you haven't.

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