Consumer Protection for Flights and Holidays

TripAdvisor fake reviews

The website TripAdvisor has been told that it cannot claim to offer trustworthy reviews from genuine travellers.
The Advertising Standards Authority in the UK censured the company after complaints that fake and misleading reviews on the travel website had reached ‘epidemic levels’.

Industry experts said it contained large numbers of paid-for reviews written by agencies or competitors which TripAdvisor’s screening systems failed to detect. In an adjudication published today, the ASA ruled that the website could not ‘claim or imply that all the reviews that appeared were from real travellers, or were honest, real or trusted’ because it failed to verify them.

TripAdvisor, which claims to provide ‘honest travel reviews and opinions from real travellers around the world’, receives 45 million unique visitors every month and a good rating can be worth tens of thousands of pounds in bookings.
But industry experts warn that large numbers of the site’s 50 million reviews are written by hotel owners or agencies acting on their behalf, or by rivals looking to take their business.

In June, an investigation by The London Times revealed that hotels were paying agencies to boost their rankings on the website and discredit their rivals. Hotel owners were found to be paying up to £10, 000 to companies who employ teams of writers to post hundreds of fake reviews.

Chris Emmins of the online reputation management company Kwikchex has been studying TripAdvisor for eight months and said that he believed as many as 10 million reviews on the site were fake and ‘real people and their livelihoods are unquestionably being hurt very badly’.

Fake reviews have forced restaurants and hoteliers out of business and caused ‘great distress’ to bed and breakfast owners . Mr Emmins said that he was aware of numerous agencies offering glowing reviews for a price.
‘Some of them have hundreds of TripAdvisor accounts and they use proxy accounts (to disguise their identity). TripAdvisor has absolutely no way of detecting them’.

Comments

– As a regular user of the site, I feel the ASA’s comments are probably justified. However, one is aware that the comments on site are highly subjective and some may be malicious. By selecting properties with a significant number of reviews, and reading between the lines, I have never been disappointed by my choice. I will continue to use the site, carefully.

– I use Tripadvisor, and when I am looking at reviews I tend to discount any that are too good or too bad, as they could well have been paid for advertising or could be from disgruntled guests who try & blackmail the hotels (Something which i witnessed first hand recently when checking out of a hotel in Auckland). If you read a selection of reviews you can get a good idea of the general opinion. If you trust just one review then you only have yourself to blame when it turns out to be misleading.

– Reviews are of course deeply subjective, but once a sample size increases beyond a handful, a series of anecdotes can be transformed into something that allows the true character of a hotel to emerge. This is TripAdvisor’s purpose – not to single out reviews one-by-one.

Spotting a fake review

It is possible to spot some paid-for reviews which are usually gushingly positive but could also be a negative assessment bought by a competitor. Common use of the pronouns ‘I’ and ‘we’, excessive use of exclamation marks! and adjectives such as very and really, clearly naming the hotel and mention of the writer’s family are obvious clues of a falsified review according to America’s Cornell University.

Readers may also find reviews more credible that contain both positive and negative elements in addition to the above.
Sadly this doesn’t mean that bogus reviews are going to disappear as the companies making money out of mass-producing reviews are going to take note of Cornell’s research and within a short time will have altered their style to camouflage the origin with more care.

Protecting your travel investment

Once you’ve paid your tour operator or travel agent, you may have no financial protection if they go bust before you travel. You may also find your dream holiday turning into a nightmare, with no recourse. So what can you do to protect your investment?

Three simple tips

Credit card: buy a flight/trip/package by credit card. This doesn’t always help but depending on what you buy, from which tour operator and with which card, it may. If, for example, you buy an airline ticket directly with a UK credit card and the company does a belly flop, the card provider will repay the flight cost over £100.

Travel insurance: get full travel insurance from a reputable company. Cheapest is not necessarily best, and read the fine print. Some policies will cover you fully if your travel service provider goes under. You pays your money, you takes your choice. . .

Traveller protection associations and bonds: check that your tour operator or travel agent is a member of one of these associations, or that they have paid for a bond for your protection. Check with the association if you have any concerns, and tell the association if you have any complaints.

If your holiday plans go pear-shaped

Generally, the way to resolve your holiday problem will be to ask the travel agent or tour operator for financial compensation. If you have not yet taken the holiday, you may be able to cancel the holiday and ask for a full refund.

If the holiday was a package deal, anyone who went on the holiday can make a complaint – it does not have to be the person who made the booking.

If your holiday was not a package, usually only the person who booked the holiday can complain. If you did not book the vacation yourself, you should ask the person who made the booking to make the complaint.

Complain to

– the tour operator if the holiday was a package deal

– the provider of the hotel/resort/guest house or transport if it was not a package deal

– your travel agent if your complaint is about additional services which they arranged for you.

You should also send details of your complaint to the travel agent if you used one and if you paid by credit card you may be able to claim against the credit card company, so send details to them too.

How to complain

Inform the appropriate people as soon as possible. If the problem occurred while you were on holiday it will help if you can show you complained at that time. Always write to the holiday trader you are complaining to even if you previously telephoned. The letter should include these details:

• invoice number, confirmation number, ticket number and other reference numbers
• holiday dates
• the cost of the accommodation, transport or package holiday
• a clear description of the fault or problem
• a statement about how the problem affected you
• anything said in the brochure, newspaper advertisement or other literature connected with the problem
• anything that was said at the time of making the holiday arrangements or booking relevant to the problem in any way
• details of the travel agent if one was used
• what you want, for example, your money back, or how much compensation you would like
• a time limit within which you expect a reply
• copies of any relevant documents or photographs showing the problem, for example, the building site next to the hotel, or supporting statements from witnesses.
Keep a copy of the letter, and originals of any relevant documents and photographs.

Flight problems in Europe?

– Call the free EU hotline 9am-6. 30pm (8am-5. 30pm in UK) 00 800 67 89 10 11.

– Or login to Europe Direct Help (free EU advice)

– Or check EU Transport Passenger Rights

Some organisations have schemes to protect travellers

UK: ATOL (Air Travel Organiser’s Licensing)
Flight packages from the UK should be protected by the Civil Aviation Authority ATOL scheme whci undertakes to give refunds in the case of a company suddenly going out of business. More information from ABTA (Association of British Travel Agents).

AITO (Association of Independent Tour Operators) An AITO member is required to arrange financial protection for all holidays and other arrangements (including accommodation only) booked by customers with the member under the AITO logo. This financial protection applies to customers who are resident in the UK at the time of booking and to most overseas customers who have booked directly with the member. In doing so, the member must comply with UK Government regulations. Members are required to submit details of their financial protection arrangements to AITO on a regular basis.

IPP (International Passenger Protection)
Your booking is insured by International Passenger Protection Limited and underwritten by Insurers who are members of the Association of British Insurers & Lloyds Syndicates.

What is ATOL (a UK organisation)

It stands for Air Travel Organisers Licensing and is a British government-backed scheme that protects consumers when travel organisers – airlines, hotels, tour operators – go bust or when holidaymakers are stranded abroad. It comes to the aid of consumers by funding flights for repatriation or offering alternative holidays.
The changes concern an extension to cover what the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) is calling ‘flight plus’ bookings, so that people who book a flight and hotel from one company within a short period of time (yet to be specified) will be covered by ATOL.
The changes will result in six million more holidays being protected by ATOL.

How do I know if I’m covered?
Check that the company you are booking with holds an ATOL by searching for it on the ATOL website.
When you have paid any money such as a deposit the company should issue an ATOL receipt to you and when you’ve paid in full you should get an ATOL Confirmation Invoice, with ATOL rights explained on it.

Will all bookings that include a flight and hotel will now be covered?
No. Not all companies are ATOL registered and travel agents can still opt to simply pass your payment for flights to another company, like an airline, and not be responsible for the booking. The advice is to check with the agent whether you’re covered.

Does it mean all flight-only bookings aren’t covered?
Flight-only bookings can be ATOL protected when bought through a travel agent; in this case you should get an ATOL Receipt for the flight. ATOL doesn’t apply if you book direct with an airline.

Over-Booked Hotels

Avoid arriving at your honeymoon hotel and finding that it’s full by taking a few precautions:

– If you use a hotel booking website, check the terms and conditions so you know what to expect if there is an issue with your reservation.

– Contact the hotel to confirm your reservation before you travel there.

Be aware that online booking companies might not send your details to the hotel until a few days before you are due to arrive.

– If there is no record of your reservation and the hotel is booked up when you arrive, contact the company you made the arrangements with. It may have a dedicated help line, so check its website before you travel.

– Before booking any kind of holiday, check that the company is ATOL and ABTA-bonded (if you are booking from the UK).

If you arrive at a hotel with a reservation but no rooms

Overbooking occurs when hotels estimate that a certain number of guests won’t turn up. However, if all the guests do show up, those who didn’t book directly with the hotel lose out.
If no reservation has been logged, it is a result of a breakdown in communication between the online booker and the hotel, but the consumer is often left struggling to obtain a refund.

If your hotel is not available because of overbooking, you must be offered a reasonable alternative or a full refund. You will also be able to claim compensation to cover the extra costs you have had to pay and to cover loss of enjoyment and inconvenience.
If you accept alternative accommodation but are not happy with it, you may still be able to get compensation if you made it clear that the alternative was accepted ‘under protest‘.

More on travel protection in case of Flight problems – delays, cancellations etc.