Yes, you can get scammed by foreign travel sites – here’s what you need to know

New Zealand - Getty

New Zealand – Getty

This week there were widely reported claims that UK holidaymakers were being charged hundreds of pounds more than those in other countries because the prices charged by travel websites can be much higher when they are accessible from an Internet server in the United Kingdom than from a server based abroad.

The flagship examples were quite remarkable. They have been generated using a VPN, which is a way of routing your request online so that the website you are booking with thinks you are browsing in a different country than the UK. This way, booking an Avis rental car for two weeks from Auckland Airport was estimated at £1,258 when the website thought the demand was from New Zealand. But when checking on the Avis UK website (avis.co.uk), a price of £2,484 was given.

The company that did the research (Nordvpn, which provides VPN services) found another big saving on a rental car – this time with Hertz in Cape Town at £529 instead of £945. Other savings highlighted – on cruises, hotels and vacations – were typically around 10-17%: more modest, but still significant.

So what are we going to make of this? Firstly, if you made a reservation using a VPN, some proportion (perhaps two or three percent) of the savings made will likely be absorbed by your debit or debit card charges, as you will almost certainly pay in a foreign currency.

Second, it’s not just about using VPNs. I don’t have a VPN, but I did some research by simply connecting directly to the website for the country in question – avis.nz rather than avis.co.uk, for example. I couldn’t quite replicate the huge saving on car hire in New Zealand mentioned above (the research was done two months ago and the prices will have changed). But it was quite easy to find significant differences. A Toyota Corolla rented from Auckland Airport for two weeks in April next year cost NZ$2,113.98 (£1,061) if I booked on avis.nz, but £1,469 on avis. co.uk. Savings in Europe were more marginal. I also tried an Avis booking at Pisa airport (November 7-14). A VW Up costs £189 on avis.co.uk; on the French site (avis.fr) it was €188 (£163) and in the US on avis.com it was $201 (£175).

But before you get too outraged, thinking we’re being ripped off for being British, further research has revealed that price differences don’t always work against us. For example, when I checked a Brittany Ferries crossing for one car and two passengers from Portsmouth to St Malo on November 7, it cost €196 (£170.82) booked on brittany-ferries.fr but only £149 on brittany -ferries.co .UK. So it was cheaper for the British than for the French.

Booking a round trip (November 7-14) from London to Paris on eurostar.com/uk (or any of its European website variants) costs £244 or the equivalent of €279. But the exact same trains booked on the US Eurostar site were around 20% more expensive at $325 (£282).

Essentially what seems to be happening here is that companies are pricing up in markets where customers are less likely to know local rates. This is part of the eternal syndrome from which travelers suffer. We don’t know how much things should cost and we’re ripe for the picking.

In my opinion, it’s easy to get distracted by over-complicating your search for a discount. It is much better to do your bargain hunting at home. For example, if you want to hire a Toyota Corolla from Auckland Airport on the dates I’ve researched above, then of course you could save £400 and get it for £1,061 by booking on the Avis New Zealand website. But if you go to UK-based car rental broker Zest (zestcarrental.com), you can hire the same car for £688. The booking would be made with a car hire company in Auckland called Mode, but the model offered is exactly the same, you pay in pounds sterling and you are dealing with a company subject to UK consumer law. Sometimes in life, the simple approach works best.

Tips for booking travel with overseas websites

If you’re tempted to compare prices using different geographic website servers, here are some tips:

1. The best place to start is to check the prices on a site in the country you are traveling to and compare them with what the UK site offers. Local prices are usually the lowest.

2. With multinational companies, you can often easily switch between websites to find one based in another country – it’s very easy on Eurostar, for example. You can also try replacing .com or .co.uk with the country’s local identifier – .fr for France, for example, or .it for Italy.

3. If you find that you keep coming back to the UK site, try using a different browser or clearing your cookies. Browsing in anonymous or private mode will also help, although it is still possible for a site to determine where you are based.

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