Brussels, 14 April 2014
Questions & answers – Sweep on travel services
Why were websites offering travel services selected for this sweep?
The online booking of air travel and hotels is increasingly popular among European consumers. In 2012, 32% of European consumers with internet access made such online bookings. The number of users is expected to rise further in the future. In 2013, the European Consumer Centres1 received 5950 complaints related to air transport and complaints related to hotels and restaurants rank among the top 10 areas for complaints.
What did national authorities check?
In this sweep, national authorities checked whether traders and intermediaries provided essential information on the main characteristics and price of travel services. They also looked at contact details of the trader, complaint handling and at the contract terms.
Member States looked both at websites of traders offering directly air travel and accommodation and at websites of intermediaries offering these two types of services. They were free to choose the number of sites to check, e.g. on basis of the resources they could spare for the sweep. Websites were primarily chosen on the basis of their popularity, on the basis of information already available to the authorities about existing problems, and via keywords.
What are the results of the investigation?
Of the 552 websites checked, 31% passed the first stage of checking and verification of compliance with the relevant EU consumer rules. The remaining 69% (382) sites were in breach of the rules protecting consumers. National enforcement authorities contacted the companies concerned to ensure that the websites offered consumers all the necessary information, if the company was based in their Member State. For companies in other Member States, assistance was asked from the authorities in that country as foreseen within the framework of the Consumer Protection Cooperation (CPC) Regulation 2006/2004. As a result, 173 websites have been updated and corrected. 209 websites are subject to on-going proceedings, including 52 commitments to correct the websites received from traders. After the initial check, 6 websites discontinued their operations and no longer exist.
What happens next?
Administrative or legal proceedings continue at national level for the 209 websites which are still not compliant. In addition, certain practices in the travel sector are being reviewed so that consumers have all the relevant information and can make informed choices.
What kinds of problems do consumers face in this market?
The biggest problems are the lack of information about the trader’s identity, in particular their email address, and details on what to do in case of a problem. Another issue is that consumers are misled about the optional nature of ancillary services linked to the flight, such as for baggage, insurance or priority boarding, as they are pre-ticked on the websites and consumers have to remove a tick from a box which they may not even notice. In addition, consumers are not given the total price up-front when the main elements of the booking are first displayed and thereby find it difficult to compare different offers. Certain problems occur more often on websites of intermediaries than on those of traders. See table 1 for more details.
What are the lessons for consumers?
Booking air travel and hotels online brings consumers many benefits in terms of broad choice and convenience. Nevertheless, consumers still need to be vigilant, informed and insist that their rights are respected. In case of any doubt, it is advisable to look for more information before proceeding with the booking, for example by contacting the trader.
7 Tips when buying travel services online
Why does the sweep take place simultaneously across the EU?
Deceptive online selling practices often concern operators located in several Member States. Ill-intentioned operators can be detected and tackled more effectively thanks to EU wide co-operation. Under the Consumer Protection Cooperation (CPC) Regulation, European authorities co-operate to suppress illegal practices which spread over several Member States. Compliance checks carried out simultaneously in a specific sector across the EU enhance the overall effectiveness of controls and demonstrate the EU willingness to tackle seriously such problems. Cooperation reduces fragmentation in the European internal market, for the benefit of both consumers and reputable businesses.
What EU rules is the sweep based upon?
The following EU consumer rules and their translation into national laws are relevant here:
Table 1: Most common problems found in the sweep
Note: The sweep was limited to 552 websites and did not exhaustively cover all existing websites in the relevant sectors Many websites had more than one suspected infringement.