02/01/2018 11:11 GMT | Updated 02/01/2018 11:11 GMT

Are Consumers Being Misled On Holiday Prices?

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The latest Which? investigation offers a window into how Consumers and Travel Companies interact when a holiday is booked. Which? tracked a number of holiday prices through the summer and reported that just over half of those tracked under ‘hurry deals’, either remained the same price or were offered at a lower price, once the deal period closed. The BBC reports that Which? has concluded that there was a possibility that this activity ‘may be misleading’. ABTA, the Travel Trade Body, acknowledged that in a ‘small number of instances’ some companies may not follow the code, but that complaints about holiday pricing ‘is very low’.

When I read this report and the ensuing debate, I saw nothing new in its revelations!

I have spoken with many Consumers who feel that they have been ‘ripped off’, simply because they thought that they were getting a great deal, only to discover after they have bought the holiday, that same holiday is being offered at a lower price or has additional benefits attached to the holiday.

In guiding consumers, we always sought to steer them primarily toward the Unfair Trading Regulations and the enforcement body, Trading Standards. Consumers reported back however a mixed experience; some couldn’t trace a Trading Standards Officer; some achieved a telephone consultation with such an officer, but all reported that they were told that nothing could be done to challenge travel companies under the regulations.

Consumers then gravitate toward the next logical route; the government. They have asked me: ‘surely, government can sort the travel companies out’? The problem with successive governments is that they all believe that the consumer is the best regulator and that they want to avoid interfering with the operation of the free-market economy; this is an argument that was used time and time again in the school holiday-pricing debates.

The added complication is that the government decided in 2010 to ‘reform’ Consumer Laws and in doing so, amended the Unfair Trading Regulations in 2014 to allow for consumers, under certain conditions, to bring civil actions to enforce their rights under the regulations. In my view, this amendment defeated the very principle of the original EU Directive, that being for the State to protect the consumer through its enforcement bodies; is this de-regulation by the back door so helping commercial entities?

Another problem for consumers is that since 2010, government has changed the landscape on how consumers access help and assistance. The Office of Fair Trading was closed, Trading Standards suffered cuts to their resources and Citizens Advice Bureau’s are expected to do more for less. In place of the OFT, the Competition & Markets Authority (CMA) offers a market surveillance but not direct consumer assistance, that is left to Trading Standards & CAB’s; can you feel the Consumer frustration?

For travel consumers, this debate does nothing to help them deal with how the market operates and the here and now. When consumers book that holiday, they are in effect devoting a large chunk of their disposable income to that purchase and they should take the following steps:

  1. Remember, when booking that holiday, just because it ‘offers’ a good price, don’t be tempted to buy straight away - shop around, compare and contrast, look at the small print!
  2. Only when you are satisfied that you think that the price you are paying is a fair price, that is the time to commit your hard-earned cash!
  3. When you make that booking, make sure that you print-off all the pages you have visited online, including those terms and conditions - you will need these if you feel that the pricing offer was unfair;
  4. If you discover that the price you paid was not really a ‘special offer’ or that it has since been reduced, challenge the travel company to match that price;
  5. If they won’t match that price, then you should make a formal complaint to the Travel Company and also to Trading Standards and/or Citizens Advice;
  6. In making your complaint, you should make sure that you quote the relevant sections in the Unfair Trading Regulations and why you think an offence has been committed;
  7. If the enforcement bodies cannot or will not help you, then you should make your complaint to the Competition & Markets Authority;
  8. If they fail to help you, then you should write to your MP and Ministers at BEIS and complain about the lack of enforcement under the regulations.

Under no circumstances should you commence any legal action, despite the fact that the regulations empower you to do so, without first seeking that all important independent legal advice!

As it stands, whilst enforcement bodies and government cogitate over their responsibilities in the free market, Consumers are on their own. It is not for me to tell consumers if they have been misled, but, can Travel Companies and government can surely understand the consumer perception? If you book your holiday and suffer this type of experience, you should make sure that you follow my route map to complaining; these ‘authorities’ are very good at talking about empowered consumers, perhaps it is time to show those same ‘Authorities’ what that actually means?