Beware of trouble with online travel bookings; it turned out to be unreserved when arriving at hotel!?
Local consumer centers across Japan have received more and more inquiries and complaints about online travel bookings. The number of those reports has nearly doubled in the last five years1.
When making a reservation through a travel booking website, consumers need to check booking details and contract conditions by themselves. Unlike over the counter booking, consumers might later notice unexpected booking details or a hefty cancellation fee if they book without sufficient care. Some consumers encountered troubles which could not be avoided by just taking care when booking (e.g. "I received a booking confirmation email from an online travel agent, but I found out that the reservation was not made when I arrived the hotel", "I just booked it once, but I was charged double", etc.).
Recently, inquiries about travel booking websites run by foreign companies (hereinafter called "foreign online travel agents") have been also received (e.g. "Explanation by helpdesk was wrong", "There is no helpdesk service in Japanese").
Therefore, the National Consumer Center Affairs of Japan (NCAC) decided to issue an alert to consumers and provide information on increasing problems associated with online travel bookings, including consultation cases and advice.
Diagram 1: Number of consultation cases on troubles over travel2
The number of consultation cases on troubles over travel and the number of consultation cases on troubles over online travel bookings among the former number were: 3,094 and 836 in FY2011; 2,927 and 932 in FY2012; 3,109 and 1,037 in FY2013; 3,137 and 1,115 in FY2014; and 3,545 and 1,669 in FY2015.
- 1 Data registered through August 20, 2016 by PIO-NET. PIO-NET (Practical Living Information Online-Network System) is a database that collects information on inquiries concerning consumer affairs by linking the National Consumer Affairs Center of Japan (NCAC) with local consumer centers and similar organizations across Japan via an online network. The data do not include inquiries referred from local consumer centers to NCAC since FY2015.
- 2 "Troubles over travel" on this graph show the number of inquiries and complaints on travel agent services including arrangements and bookings for packaged tours in and/or outside Japan including short term study abroad tours, tickets, accommodation, etc. "Troubles over online travel bookings" show the number of inquiries and complaints thereof among the number of "troubles over travel".
Example cases of inquiries & complaints
- [Case1] I booked an overseas hotel through an online travel agent. When I get there, the hotel told me that no reservation was made.
- I booked an overseas hotel which costs about 80,000 yen per night through a foreign online travel agent, and received a booking confirmation email. When arriving at the hotel, however, I was told "No reservation was made, so you can't stay here". Then I looked for another hotel till late at night without having dinner, and finally found one. Since it was on the day of arrival in the middle of high season, I was charged about 100,000 yen per night. All the restaurants were closed when I found the hotel, so I just had food in the minibar in my hotel room. The long awaited stay in the resort area was spoiled. Although I was not charged by the hotel in which I was unable to stay, I want the online travel agent to cover the balance between the price originally expected and the payment for the hotel I stayed. After returning home, I contacted the online travel agent many times, but I haven't received any response.
- (received in January 2016, contract signatory: woman in her 40s, Tokyo)
- [Case2] While I was trying to book air tickets, "Error" was shown on the screen. I made another reservation. Later, I realized that double booking occurred.
- I was trying to buy air tickets for two persons (50,000 yen in total) to go abroad through a Japanese online travel agent via smartphone. I entered all the necessary items including my credit card number on the payment screen. When I pressed the button "Complete", the screen showed an error message: "The server is busy now, so try again later". I didn't receive a booking confirmation email, so I thought it was unable to make a reservation. Then I bought air tickets through an airline company website. When I contacted the airline company at a later date, it was found out that the initial booking through the online travel agent had been also completed and double booking occurred. The airline company told me that it was unable to cancel. I wonder if I can get a refund.
- (received in December 2015, contract signatory: woman in 20s, Tokyo)
- [Case3] A contract item turned out to be different from what I had chosen.
- I booked air tickets and a hotel for my honeymoon through a foreign online travel agent. I chose a cottage on water of type A, but a booking confirmation email indicated a room of type B in an ordinary building. I tried again on the same website and found out that although I chose a room of type A, the screen just before booking showed a room of type B. This error occurred many times. Since the room type was indicated in an inconspicuous position on the screen, I didn't notice the change in the room type. I had been looking forward to stay in the room of type A for a long time. The online travel agent replied that it was not possible to change the booking or give a refund. What should I do?
- (received in October 2015, contract signatory: man in his 30s, Osaka)
- [Case4] I paid the charge, but it became unable to contact the agent before receiving the air ticket.
- About three months ago, I booked a domestic round air ticket through a Japanese online travel agent. Soon I received an email from the agent saying "Please remit the charge by tomorrow. The authorization number will be sent to you up to three days before the departure". So I paid about 80,000 yen through a bank transfer. The other day, however, I read on the Internet that some consumers cannot contact the online travel agent. I telephoned the agent right away, but it was unable to get through to them. My departure date is just one week ahead. I don't even know whether or not the air ticket is reserved. What should I do?
- (received in April 2015, contract signatory: woman in her 20s, Saitama)
- [Case5] I want to cancel an air ticket, departure date of which is six months ahead. The cancellation fee will be 50% of the price.
- I ordered air tickets for three persons for traveling abroad after six months through a Japanese online travel agent. The website stated that the deadline for payment was coming close, so I rushed to pay the price 300,000 yen with my credit card without carefully reading the terms and conditions. Next day, I decided to change flights and read up on the terms and conditions, which stated "In case of cancellation, 50% of the price will be charged as a cancellation fee". The booked departure date is half a year later and only one day passed from the day of booking. I am dissatisfied with such a costly cancellation fee. Is it possible to cancel the booking without paying the cancellation fee?
- (received in February 2016, contract signatory: man in his 50s, Aichi)
- [Case6] I want to correct an item registered for booking. There is no helpdesk service in Japanese.
- I booked an air ticket for traveling abroad through a foreign online travel agent. When I saw a booking confirmation email, I noticed that my forename and surname were registered the other way around. I wanted to change the registered name or redo the booking, so I accessed the website again. The website stated "Inquiries are accepted only in English", and I found out that they would not respond in Japanese, although the booking page was written in Japanese. It was unable to cancel or change the booking at the website. I telephoned the helpdesk and told in my poor English that my name had been improperly registered, but I didn't understand what the helpdesk said. What should I do?
- (received in February 2016, contract signatory: woman in her 40s, Hiroshima)
- [Case7] The helpdesk wrongly explained about a refund.
- I booked air tickets and a hotel for two persons for overseas travel through a foreign online travel agent. At a later date, I received an email from the agent informing that the flight schedule was changed. So I telephoned the helpdesk to cancel the booking. The helpdesk said "All the money will be refunded", so I felt relieved. However, about 70,000 yen for the hotel charge was not refunded. I called the helpdesk again, who said "We certainly told that all the money would be refunded, but it was wrong. To be exact, only the air fare payment can be fully refunded". I was surprised by the explanation. I want the company to refund all the money including hotel charge, as they initially said.
- (received in January 2015, contract signatory: woman in her 20s, Kouchi)
Problems highlighted by the sampling of inquiries and complaints
(1) Some problems are unavoidable even with due care (e.g. system error).
Some of the troubles associated with travel booking websites were unavoidable even with due care. In some cases, it was unable to complete a reservation due to a system error on the travel booking website. Sometimes consumers were double billed. (Case 1, 2, 3)
There appears to be no fault in those consumers. In reality, it is difficult for consumers to show evidence that a booking trouble was caused by a system error. If a travel booking website operator does not properly investigate to determine whether or not a system error occurred, it would be difficult to solve such a trouble.
(2) In case of bankruptcy, it is difficult to get a full refund.
It was reported that an online travel agent went bankrupt after a consumer placed an order and paid the charge, which made the consumer unable to go traveling or to be refunded. (Case 4)
The Travel Agency Act states that in case of default by a travel agent which went bankrupt, consumer's payment will be partly reimbursed with use of the Business Guarantee Bond System3 or the Compensation Security Bond System4. If the amount of damages exceeds the value of business guarantee bond or compensation limit, the money deposited will have to be prorated among all the contract signatories based on individual levels of damages. In this case, consumers seldom get full reimbursement.
(3) Sometimes it is difficult to communicate with a foreign online travel agent
In case of a foreign online travel agent, sometimes it is difficult for Japanese consumers to communicate with the agent. For example, it might be unable to contact when encountering trouble, or there might be no helpdesk service in Japanese although the booking website is written in Japanese. (Case 6)
Sometimes consumers cannot receive proper service from helpdesk of a foreign online travel agent. Explanation of conditions for cancellation, refund, etc. might not be correct. Consumers might be given the runaround between an online travel agent and a hotel. (Case 7)
(4) It might be difficult to negotiate with a foreign online travel agent based on Japan's laws.
Foreign online travel agents usually have terms and conditions based on foreign trading laws. In case of a foreign online travel agent without a branch in Japan, Japan's Travel Agency Act would not be applied. Even if a Japanese consumer requests for a refund based on Japan's laws or the Standard Terms and Conditions of Travel Contracts under the Travel Agency Act, such a request will hardly be accepted by a foreign online travel agent.
For example, some foreign online travel agents have not set up a final confirmation screen. In case of a contract with a Japanese online travel agent, it is possible to assert the invalidity of a contract concluded without being shown a final confirmation screen based on the Act on Special Provisions to the Civil Code Concerning Electronic Consumer Contracts and Electronic Acceptance Notice. In case of a contract with a foreign online travel agent, however, such an assertion will hardly be accepted.
Advice for consumers
(1) Confirm information on the travel booking website including the company's location before entering into a contract.
Confirm in which country the company is located prior to entering into a contract.
In case of using a Japanese online travel agent, check if the company is registered under the Travel Agency Act.5-6
In case of using a foreign online travel agent, check if there is a way to contact helpdesk (e.g. via telephone or email), if helpdesk service is provided in Japanese, and so on. Even if the website is written in Japanese, helpdesk service may not be provided in Japanese. Remember that negotiation based on Japan's laws might be difficult in case of trouble.
- 3 System to give a certain level of compensation from the business guarantee bonds deposited by the travel agent to the traveler in respect of any claim arising from transactions with the travel agent which is not a full member of the Japan Association of Travel Agents (source: website of the Japan Tourism Agency).
- 4 System to give a certain level of compensation from the compensation security bonds deposited by the Japan Association of Travel Agents to the traveler in respect of any claim arising from transactions with the travel agent (guarantor) which is a full member of the Japan Association of Travel Agents (source: website of the Japan Tourism Agency).
- 5 The registered number is usually shown on a company profile page on the travel booking website or on the brochure (e.g. Registered Travel Agency No. XXX approved by the Commissioner of the Japan Tourism Agency). Japanese travel agents are registered by Commissioner of the Japan Tourism Agency (Class 1) or by prefectural governor (Class 2 & 3), according to the scope of their operations.
- 6 Some travel booking websites allow consumers to search for hotels and air tickets, but redirect consumers to website of a hotel or an airline company chosen prior to entering into a contract. Operators of those websites that sell ad space to hotels etc. are not subject to the Travel Agency Act, even if they are registered under the Act. In this case, contract details are based on terms and conditions of each hotel or airline company instead of the Standard Terms and Conditions of Travel Contracts. It is essential to carefully check a type of contract and a type of website operator before entering into a contract.
(2) Before completing your booking, carefully read contract conditions including a cancellation fee and details of what you booked.
When booking over the counter, consumers can receive explanations on contract details and conditions from the agent on the spot. When booking through an online travel agent, however, consumers themselves need to fully check contract details and conditions prior to placing an order.
Cancellation fees for packaged tours, air tickets, accommodation, etc. sold through travel booking websites vary depending on plans and commodities. Contract conditions for changing travel schedule, etc. also vary (e.g. unchangeable, changeable with fee, etc.).7 In principle, conditions for cancelling a contract, changing schedule, etc. are bound by the contract. Even if a consumer finds out an expensive cancellation fee or typing error right after placing an order, it is not always possible to cancel or change the contract without conditions.8 Booked air tickets are often unchangeable. In some cases, for example, when a consumer was unable to get on board due to wrongly registered name, it was unable to get a refund after cancellation. (Case 6)
When booking through an online travel agent, carefully read contract conditions including a cancellation fee for air tickets and/or hotels which you are going to book before placing an order. Remember to fully check if all the items have been correctly entered, such as your name, email address9, and travel schedule. Explanations on websites might not be easy to understand, so due care is necessary.
(3) Keep a booking confirmation email till the end of your travel.
A booking confirmation email which is sent to you after entering into a contract is an important document to indicate contract details and conditions including a cancellation fee. In case of trouble, there may be some difference in recognition on contract details and/or conditions between you and the online travel agent. Check if you have received the confirmation email and if so, read it carefully. Be sure to keep it till the end of your travel.
The booking screen, on which you can check booking details you entered at the time of placing an order, is also very important. Print the screen and keep it.
(4) When in trouble, contact your local consumer center.
When you are in trouble, contact your local consumer center right away(Consumer hotline: 188 (no prefix). The hotline connects you to your local consumer center.). Inquiries on troubles with foreign companies are also received by the Cross-border Consumer Center Japan (CCJ)10 in NCAC, so please feel free to contact CCJ.
- 7 In case of a contract with a Japanese travel agent, the Standard Terms and Conditions of Travel Contracts are often used. They state in the part of "Arranged Tour Contracts" that in case of voluntary change or cancellation by a traveler, the traveler must bear the cost which has already been paid, or which must be paid in the future, to transportation/accommodation facilities, etc., such as a cancellation fee, a penalty, and a handling charge. In the parts of "Packaged Tour Contracts" and "Customized Tour Contracts", standard conditions are set out for payment of a cancellation fee. The type of contracts is defined on terms and conditions made by the agent. If air tickets and hotels are separately booked through an online travel agent, the contract often falls under the category of an arranged tour contract.
- 8 Even if a cancellation fee is set out on the terms and conditions, if the cancellation fee exceeds the normal amount of damages, it may be possible to assert the invalidity of such a cancellation fee based on Article 9 of the Consumer Contract Act.
- 9 Many online travel agents send a booking confirmation email to a consumer after completion of booking and provide service which enables the consumer to see the booking information with use of each account. If a consumer mistypes email address or other items, the consumer cannot receive a booking confirmation email, cannot get correct booking information, or encounters problems like double booking due to inadequate connection between his/her account and booking data, which sometimes makes it difficult to solve problems.
- 10 Inquiries are accepted via website form, email or facsimile (acceptable for 24 hours). (https://ccj.kokusen.go.jp/)