Price comparison websites that cater for consumers looking for cheap airfares and hotels claim they search hundreds or even thousands of airline and travel agency websites to find the cheapest airfares and hotel rates. However, recent reports have raised questions about misleading practices in the way they display the prices. The Consumer Council conducted a survey on 6 comparison websites for airfare and found that even for the same flight, the “cheapest” airfares shortlisted by these comparison websites could still vary by nearly a double. Quite often when consumers were diverted from the comparison websites to the ticket-selling websites for the “cheapest” ticket, they could find it marked at a higher price. In some cases, these tickets were sold out or not even listed on the ticket-selling websites. Furthermore, none of the comparison websites in the survey provided clear information in regard to baggage allowance, fare or booking class, air mileage earnings, or ticket change and cancellation policies. Consumers should bear in mind that this information can affect airfare, so they should always understand their own needs, compare the terms and conditions carefully to validate the legitimacy and reliability of the information and do not make booking decision solely based on the recommendations of the comparison websites.
In the survey, the Council covered 6 airfare comparison websites operating as search engines. The consumers enter their destination and time for their desired flights, and the websites provide a free search for the cheapest air tickets available. The consumers then go to the selected third-party website to buy the ticket. The survey was conducted in January and February 2019, with similar criteria entered for actual trial search by each website at least 50 times, including 20 times for short-haul flights, 18 for medium-haul flights and 13 for long-haul flights.
Although all 6 comparison websites claimed the airfares they displayed were the lowest prices available, results of actual trials showed a huge price difference among the websites for their so-called “cheapest” air tickets. The biggest variation was recorded in a return ticket from Hong Kong to Jeju, Korea, for July 2019. The highest price $4,102 was nearly double the lowest price $2,081 displayed on these 6 websites. Consumers should take note that the difference may be due to factors related to different airlines and departure times.
However, even the search results displayed the same flight of the same airline, the price shortlisted on different comparison websites could also vary. Taking the HK–Jeju flight as an example, amongst the “cheapest” airfares of the identical flight displayed on the 4 websites, 3 were of the same price at $2,536 while the lowest one was $2,081, representing a difference of more than 20%.
Another example was a return ticket from Hong Kong to Singapore for August 2019. The search results showed that the “cheapest” airfares shortlisted by the 6 sites for the same flight produced 5 different prices – 2 at $1,320 and the others at $1,337, $1,262, $1,205 and $920 respectively. The difference between the highest and lowest was over 45%.
In actual trials, the displayed prices on the 6 comparison websites were found to differ from the actual purchase prices of the ticket-selling websites with the biggest variation from one comparison website as high as 41.5%. The purchase prices displayed by the ticket-selling websites were often found to be higher than the prices displayed by the comparison websites. The biggest variation was for the HK–Singapore flight where the lowest price displayed by the comparison websites was $920 but on the relevant airline website, the price went up to $1,309.69, representing an increase of nearly 30%.
In addition to price variations, consumers should pay attention to the comprehensiveness and reliability of the information provided by the comparison websites. On 11.3% to 17.3% of the actual trials conducted on 3 comparison sites, the lowest-priced tickets were either sold out or the fares shortlisted could not be displayed.
The Council noted that some comparison websites may include search results on hacker fares, which combine different single tickets into one return ticket, or intentionally give up the segment of the ticket to further reduce the price. Consumers should be aware of the potential risks involved in hacker fares, and the chance of violating the airline terms and conditions on ticket usage. It is advisable for consumers to think twice and seek clarification with airlines before making such purchase.
Consumer browsing airfare comparison websites should take note of the following:
- As these websites search the websites of travel agencies and airline companies globally, consumers could be referred to websites abroad for ticket purchase, and though the ticket-selling websites may display prices in Hong Kong currency, they may bill in foreign currency. Consumers may have to bear additional surcharge for currency conversion and the fluctuation in exchange rate. In case of any dispute, it could be hard for them to seek redress;
- Prices of air tickets with transit stops are generally lower than those of tickets for direct flights – the more transit stops and the longer the in-transit waiting time, the cheaper the tickets. Consumers should pay attention to details, such as whether the flying time includes the transit waiting time, or if the waiting time is so long that it requires a hotel stay in the place of transit;
- Buying air tickets separately in a licensed travel agency in Hong Kong is not covered by the Travel Industry Compensation Fund (TICF). Only consumers who purchase travel package of air ticket with accommodation or arrangements for an activity through a travel agency in Hong Kong will be given a levy by the travel agency, and are under the TICF protection.
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