Online travel agents and flight comparison websites: Don't instantly plump for the cheapest deal

The man who pays his way

Simon Calder
Friday 12 February 2016 10:48 GMT
Tourists pose in front of the Sydney Opera House, Australia
Tourists pose in front of the Sydney Opera House, Australia (AFP/Getty)

Audrey and Brian Kay were robbed. During a trip to Australasia, to celebrate their diamond anniversary, their passports were stolen somewhere between Sydney airport and the city centre. The theft led to their family learning that the octogenarian couple had paid astronomical amendment fees to a firm called CheapOair.

The flight tickets for a short hop from Sydney to Auckland and back had originally cost £143 each. But Mr Kay was then charged £1,049 to move the inbound flight by a day. After the theft, his daughter-in-law had to amend the flight once more, and was charged a further £950. For a couple of minor changes, they paid seven times the original cost of the flights.

Richard Kay, the couple's son, contacted me to ask if the fees were fair. Initially, I couldn't say for sure: it can sometimes cost a fortune to adjust flights for perfectly legitimate reasons.

The freedom to amend cheap tickets was initiated by easyJet 20 years ago. Before that, the typical airline attitude was: you've bought a cheap ticket; if you can't fly exactly as booked, we'll hang on to your cash. (For some of them, that still is the policy.) Then easyJet took a more reasonable view. If your plans alter, just pay a “change fee” (currently £15 to £45 per person per flight) plus – crucially – any difference in fare.

That latter component can trigger extreme price hikes. For example, I am flying to the Bavarian Alps next month, out on easyJet to Friedrichshafen and back from Munich. The cost to switch to this week – half-term for most schools – is £686, or 16 times my original fare. No complaints; easyJet is simply offering an option. Don't like the price? Don't switch the flights.

There might have been a good reason for a spike in demand, and therefore fares, on Mr and Mrs Kay's new dates to cross the Tasman Sea: school holidays, a big sporting event or a mega-convention. But Air New Zealand, the airline they flew on, told me the change fee would be around £80 each.

So, what led to the couple being charged £2,000? CheapOair says extracting the two very large payments was merely “a mistake”.

Special agents

Travel agents provide tremendous value, so long as they are on your side. My experiences with the real, live versions who you can talk to and look in the eye have been overwhelmingly positive.

Haydn Wrath, founder of Travel Nation of Brighton, saved me £500 on a multi-stop South Pacific adventure by using a little-known airpass loophole to max out a round-the-world ticket with the One World alliance. Less exotically, but just as useful, agents such as Jacqui Ridler of demand customers' passport details – partly to ensure that names on tickets match travel documents, and also to detect problems such as an expiry date that could leave you marooned.

Shall I compare thee?

With human travel agents you can form a view about their devotion to you. But with the online variety, loyalty is harder to ascertain. Should you need a cheap flight from Sydney to Auckland, you could just type “cheap flight from Sydney to Auckland” into Google. When I tried, the top search result was CheapOair – the firm that proved an expensive choice for Mr and Mrs Kay.

Better to assess your options through a fare-comparison website. Skyscanner, Dohop and Kayak deliver an excellent picture of airlines, fares and flight times on pretty much any route you would want to take (with the exception, with Kayak, of Cuba, “due to US travel restrictions”).

When the flight-comparison elves have performed their marvellous free-of-charge service, don't instantly plump for the cheapest deal. If it is offered by an agency that you haven't dealt with before, find out where the firm is based; those reassuring “” suffixes may mask a headquarters in Sweden, Switzerland, Greece or Russia.

If things go awry, a faraway firm may prove less responsive than an agency on your High Street, or at least one within reach of the long arm of Trading Standards. And note the Spanish practices of, based in Barcelona. I searched for an Edinburgh-London flight, and eDreams offered one for just £3.88. But the small print says the best price is available only when paying with Visa Entropay. If, like most human beings, you don't have a “virtual Visa card” but instead use a real debit card, the price rises five-fold to £21.58. Buyer beware.

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