For many, the most stressful aspect of any summer holiday can often involve the rental car. You arrive at your destination, your bags are miraculously first off the conveyor belt and you think you’re off to a winning start – until you see the epic queue to pick up your hire car.
It all goes wrong from there.
The queuing system is incomprehensible, there’s only one counter open, the car you’re getting isn’t the one you saw online, the boot’s too small for your bags and you get sold collision damage waiver (CDW) insurance you thought was included – but wasn’t – and actually costs three times more than you’re paying for the car. How did you miss that trick (again)? Then, just as you’re getting over the experience (on the way back to the airport), the car hire company discovers several scratches that you’re sure were already there and sends you on your merry way with a big repair bill.
If only you’d bought that CDW insurance!
This might all sound familiar (or maybe it’s just me), but for many the frustration actually begins much earlier than the airport, when you’re still at home trying to get the best possible deal. It’s all about the price, but just what is the price? Sometimes it can seem as elusive as those child booster seats you forgot to book. And it is this issue – the price, not the booster seats – that the ASA has addressed in its latest ruling against a car hire comparison site, rentalcars.com, operated by Travel Jigsaw Limited.
On this particular price comparison website, which aggregates the cars on offer from several different car hire companies, the booking system generates prices based on the consumer’s selected dates and other requirements. In the case investigated by the ASA, the website came up with a prominent headline price of £93.86, with an additional, but less prominent line of text that read “+84.13€ (about £73.28) car hire company fee".
The complainant believed the ad was misleading because the additional amount, which was mandatory, had not been made sufficiently clear in the booking process. The advertiser explained that this additional amount was a fee the car hire company charged where the car was being dropped off at a different location at the end of the hire period. As this fee was classed as a “pay later” item, it was shown as a less prominent, secondary line. The advertiser said the search results could have been sorted by estimated total price which would have enabled the consumer to more easily understand the total price.
The ASA upheld the complaint because the headline price of £93.86 was the most prominent price in the ad and, consequently, consumers would be led to believe that was the total price, including all mandatory fees. Rule 3.18 of the ad code states that “Quoted prices must include non-optional taxes, duties, fees and charges that apply to all or most buyers”. The only exception was where those amounts couldn’t be calculated in advance. That didn’t apply here, because the additional mandatory fee was known and so should have been factored into the “total” price displayed to the consumer.
As we head into the holiday season, the ASA’s ruling is a shot across the cruise ship’s bows for price comparison sites and other traders offering online travel bookings. As seems to have been the case here, sometimes it’s just the way a pricing element is categorised that can cause problems, so it is important to regularly test algorithms and carefully identify whether search results are being presented in the most appropriate and transparent way. Pricing transparency is a key areas of enforcement activity for the ASA, not to mention the Competition and Markets Authority, and it’s therefore vital to get this right.
... because the total price, including all non-optional fees, was not clear as soon as prices were quoted, we concluded that the ad was misleading.