Des McGhee felt ‘conned’ when an itemised invoice finally revealed just how much Opodo had added.

Online comparison site’s ‘best price’ doubles when its own fees, buried in small print, are added

Online travel agent Opodo seemed to offer the best deal when Des McGhee searched Kayak, the price comparison website, for a flight from London to Glasgow. Until he reached Opodo’s checkout page, that is. The price had more than doubled, from the £116.80 quoted for four tickets with easyJet to £242.80, with £126 of this the cost of checking in four bags at £31.50 each.

It wasn’t until he received the booking confirmation from easyJet that he discovered that the airline had only charged £180.80, including £15.99 per bag. The balance went into the coffers of Opodo. This only became clear when he demanded Opodo send him an itemised invoice which included a £62 “mediation fee”.

“This charge, which added over another third to the fare price, was mentioned nowhere obvious in the booking process,” he says. “It seems that Opodo is luring customers by quoting a basic fare, then conning them into paying an extortionate service fee by disguising it within the airline’s baggage charge. Had this fee been listed separately on the payment page, I would not have purchased these tickets through Opodo.”

McGhee’s suspicion is well founded. As legislation evolves to make prices more transparent, companies are devising cunning new ways to get round the rules, and online travel agents are among the biggest offenders.

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) only requires quoted prices to include mandatory service charges. Because checked-in baggage is technically an optional add-on – although essential for most travellers – Opodo and other agents are hiding service charges in the baggage fee, then adding another hefty charge for seat selection.

The ASA told the Observer that it’s not clear whether its rules require agents to tell customers who choose to check in luggage that the cost includes Opodo’s fee. “Whether or not it’s misleading by omission has not been tested under our rules,” it says.

Campaigners are clear that companies are playing the system to hoodwink the uninitiated. “Some online travel agents hide surcharges within baggage fees to game search results on comparison sites with low headline fares,” says Rory Boland, travel editor at Which?. He cites cases of passengers who have been contacted by a travel agent after confirming the transaction, to be told they must pay extra or lose their reservation as the price rose during the booking process.

A search of Opodo’s terms and conditions makes, some way down, an allusion to service charges, but there is no mention of what they are, or how they are calculated.

Opodo says it charges a fee, which depends on the number of passengers and the route, and that “all costs are displayed in a transparent way”.

To demonstrate, it sent screenshots of a dummy booking through Kayak which linked to Opodo’s website. A single price was quoted for baggage without warning that this included Opodo’s own charge. Only on the final payment was there fine print stating fees are included, but not how much. When this was pointed out, Opodo sent screenshots of a booking directly through Opodo. “The final price is clearly shown at all stages and updated when a customer adds other services, such as baggage,” it says.

The “final price” is indeed displayed, but again not the hefty service charge. You have to click on a minute “i” on the personal details page to reveal it adds “on average” £19.75 on top of the airline fee for each checked-in bag. On the final payment page, small print beneath the final price offers a price breakdown, but service charges aren’t mentioned, only a baggage fee.

Kayak says it includes a “Fare Assistant” alongside search results so customers can see the cost of checked-in baggage, but it doesn’t explain that it may exceed the airline’s own fee.

Ever since lucrative credit and debit surcharges were banned last year, online travel agents have funded their bargain prices with a lengthening list of pricey add-ons. Gotogate, part of Etraveli, which has 12 million customers, requires them to navigate at least 10 payable options before the payment page, by which time many will have lost track of the cost.

An easyJet return flight from London to Munich, advertised at £107.27 for two, quadruples to £447.76 by the time you’ve added £54.84 in mandatory taxes and fees quoted separately in small print, £136 to check in two 15kg bags, and various optional extras, some of which are available elsewhere for free and all of which are presented as though they are important precautions. These include £50 to select two seats, £7.94 per head for automatic online check-in, which you can do yourself without charge, and £5.80 each to have the flight number texted to your phone, although easyJet supplies it on a free app.

Passengers are also encouraged to spend £7.90 on “AirHelp flight delay compensation”. It’s not explained in the invitation that compensation is available free under an EU directive. And there’s an offer of Blue Ribbon Bags insurance to track and compensate for lost baggage, which airlines are contracted to do for you. This costs £19 per head. Take it out direct through Blue Ribbon Bags and it’s $5.

The biggest nerve is the charge for after-sales customer service – £8.90 if you want a response within 12 hours and £19.90 for an eight-hour wait. It’s not specified whether, or when, those who select the basic free service will get a reply. The same flight booked direct with easyJet costs £273.46, including £69.79 to check in two bags there and back, and £34 to reserve seats.

Gotogate says that customers are aware that it is an intermediary and should have “an insight” into its different pricing levels. “It is never our intention to mislead customers and we will review this immediately and see if we should change how we communicate,” it says.

EasyJet says it has begun an investigation into how its fares and services are marketed by third parties, as it is “concerned about the growing trend for online travel agents to add ‘stealth charges’”.

Martyn James of the complaints website Resolver says travel companies are getting away with misleading charges because the sector is unregulated. “There’s no one to monitor, warn or fine these firms,” he says.