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What you should know before booking travel with one of these sites


When booking a trip, for many travellers, the first port of call is websites like Expedia or Booking.com.

Often referred to as online travel agents, these third-party sites are a one-stop shop, letting you compare a range of options – with the promise of low prices – and complete your booking in just a few clicks.

“In theory, they provide more competition, because people are able to look at prices across the board and potentially make a more informed decision,” said Consumer NZ spokesperson Gemma Rasmussen.

Travellers might book with these sites thinking they’re getting a better deal. However, when travel plans go awry, they may find themselves worse off.

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Earlier this month, Stuff Travel wrote about a Wellington couple who spent “countless hours” spent trying to access flight credits after the trip they had booked with Expedia was cancelled by Covid back in 2020.

Third-party sites promise the best deals – but when things go wrong, travellers may find themselves worse off.

iStock

Third-party sites promise the best deals – but when things go wrong, travellers may find themselves worse off.

Since that story was published, Stuff Travel has heard from more than a dozen other travellers who have had similar issues with third-party sites, struggling to get credits or refunds they were owed.

Last year, Consumer NZ issued a warning against online travel agent eDreams, after receiving multiple complaints from customers struggling to get refunds and support. Another couple cautioned against booking flights with Kiwi.com, after an itinerary they booked turned out to be invalid due to Covid-19 restrictions.

In 2022, the Commerce Commission received 95 enquiries related to online travel agencies – namely, Webjet (27), Expedia (24), Flight Centre (20), Booking.com (20) and Agoda (4).

These enquiries predominantly related to refunds, but also covered a range of other issues, including cancellations, customer service, undisclosed charges, contractual issues, changes in itineraries, promotions, payments, changes in terms and conditions and pricing differences.

Dealing with the middleman

If your travel plans change for any reason, you want to be able to get it sorted quickly.

But if you’ve booked through a third-party site, in most cases, you’ll have to go through them – you can’t just approach the airline or hotel direct.

It’s not always obvious where a third-party site is based, as they will often purchase a local domain, making it look as though they have a New Zealand-based team. But usually, you’ll be dealing with an offshore customer service centre, Rasmussen says.

“It can add a layer of difficulty.”

Having that middleman can also make it difficult to determine who is responsible when things go wrong. Many of those who contacted Stuff Travel about their experiences reported being passed between the third-party site and the airline, with each passing the buck to the other to resolve the issue.

Communications from third-party sites can also come across as unprofessional. Last year, Stuff Travel wrote about a family in a battle with Expedia over $20,000 worth of costs, after they showed up to the airport to find their tickets didn’t exist.

Expedia said it had made multiple attempts to contact the customer about the problem with the booking – but the customer said they only received one “bizarre” email, which they had dismissed as spam.

Doing your research

Rasmussen says third-party sites can be a useful tool for people to research their options. But she also encourages people to research the sites themselves before booking.

“If you are feeling like a deal is too good to be true or you’re having some apprehension about a third-party site, do a quick Google to see what people are saying – are there other customer experiences out there, particularly local in New Zealand?”

Even if you think you’ve found a great deal and you’re confident the site is legit, it was always worth going straight to the source to see what was available.

“Previous investigations found people were able to get a better deal when they called a hotel directly.”

It’s worth calling a hotel to see if they will match a deal, or do you an even better one.

Brook Sabin/Stuff

It’s worth calling a hotel to see if they will match a deal, or do you an even better one.

It’s also important for travellers to review the site’s fine print before going ahead and booking, says Commerce Commission general manager fair trading Vanessa Horne.

“The main factor that will determine each party’s rights or obligations will be the terms and conditions that were agreed to at the time of the booking or transaction,” Horne says.

If booking flights, you should also check the policies and conditions of carriage of the airline. However, consumers also have statutory rights if a flight delay or cancellation is for reasons within an airline’s control.

When it goes wrong

When booking travel via any source, it’s always a good idea to protect yourself with travel insurance – though be sure to check the policy carefully so you know exactly what you’re covered for.

Rasmussen also recommends paying for your trip using your credit or debit card.

“It means you can request a chargeback from your bank, within a set period, if things are to go really wrong.”

If you’re struggling to get a credit or refund you’re owed via a third-party site, know that the Fair Trading Act is on your side.

“Businesses must not make false or misleading representations to consumers about their right to a remedy or refund, including the timing of refunds or the process that will be followed for refunds,” Horne says.

“Where a business has received funds from a supplier or third party that are due to be returned to a consumer, best practice is for the business to remit those funds to the customer as soon as possible in the circumstances.

“Businesses should communicate regularly with consumers about the timing of any refunds and create clear and transparent policies up front.”

If the company is based in New Zealand, you can go through the Disputes Tribunal. However, it becomes more complicated when the company is based offshore – as most third-party sites are.

Rasmussen says in those instances an option would be to lodge a complaint with the Commerce Commission. If enough people are having issues with a particular company, the Commission may be able to take them to court for breaching the Fair Trading Act.

“There are examples of where international companies have been held to account in New Zealand.”

Consumer NZ also welcomed hearing about any issues with third-party sites.

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