BBC Watchdog viewers were treated to the difference between dealing with an agent and a principal on Wednesday night when online travel agent On The Beach was featured.
Having spoken to three disgruntled customers of the firm, the show warned viewers who book with an online travel agency they could be left empty-handed if their holiday goes wrong.
On The Beach has responded by saying it has high satisfaction levels, it offers 100% Atol financial protection and is one of the only online agents to have in-resort reps.
However, despite On The Beach being careful to explain to customers that it does not sell packages those customers featured on Watchdog say they had assumed the firm was a package tour operator.
One pointed out that the fact that On The Beach is in Abta made her think that the company would take full responsibility for the product in the same way a traditional tour operator does.
The Independent’s travel editor Simon Calder pointed out that On The Beach’s terms and conditions, common among all online dynamic packaging agents, do state this is not the case.
But he said this nuance is often lost on most customers who assume the company they are booking with is by law fully responsible for all aspects of the holiday.
Tour operators acting as principals are subject to the Package Travel Regulations which mean they are responsible for the health and safety and all aspects of the provision of the holidays they sell.
The Watchdog consumer affairs programme featured a couple who had booked a two week honeymoon at the Aqua Blu in Sharm el Sheikh. When they arrived they were told the hotel had no record of their reservation, and their booking was for another hotel.
On The Beach did offer them another hotel, but if they wanted to stay in the hotel of their choice, it would cost an extra £2,000.
Another customer said he tried to get On The Beach to change a flight reservation but it refused even though the carrier and booking agent said they were happy to allow the change.
He claimed he was forced to buy a separate flight costing another £1,000.
A third client featured said her room was “filthy” with dirty sheets and broken furniture. She told the programme: “We assumed it was a package. It quite clearly states they’re Abta recognised so you feel that you’re safe.”
Presenter Sonali Shah said: “On the Beach said it’s because the trips they sell are not package holidays, they are booked through third party agents. The problem is, you might not realise that when you book.”
The online agency also “isn’t always bothered” about the standard of the accommodation they sell, said Shah.
On another occasion, Watchdog said the agency used the wrong picture of a hotel, leaving the client with a three star hotel instead of the five star property he thought he’d booked.
Shah said: “On The Beach do offer cheap holidays, but they can come at a price, leaving you with a dream holiday you can’t wait to forget.”
On The Beach chief marketing officer Alistair Daly said: “Customer satisfaction is of paramount importance to On the Beach and where we have made a mistake we have accepted and offered full refunds to our customers.
“We must make it clear however, that any customer who finds themselves unhappy with any part of their holiday must contact On the Beach or our suppliers whilst in-resort so we are able to deal with the situation immediately.
“We are one of Europe’s largest online travel agents, carrying more than 750,000 happy holidaymakers every year receiving high customer satisfaction scores, consistently over 95%.
“We also provide TripAdvisor hotel reviews alongside our own customer reviews to help people make informed decisions about their hotel choice, plus we are one of the only online travel agents to launch an In-Resort Rep service to provide customer support while on holiday.
“Our customers can also rest assured that by booking with On the Beach, their holiday and money is 100% protected by our Atol licence.”
Watchdog said On The Beach had reimbursed all the customers featured, but only after their problems were raised by the programme.