WANT TO BOOK A HOTEL ROOM? Easy, just type “hotel rooms” into Google, and you’ll be introduced to a list of paid ads for Booking.com, TripAdvisor, Hotels.com, Trivago, Kayak, Laterooms and others.
There’s never been so much choice for the consumer, while for the hotel-owners, as one told me recently: “I couldn’t survive in this business without them.”
Want to book a flight and hotel? Then you need go no further than the likes of Expedia which, like many other similar search-engine sites has, since 2012, had to offer ATOL protection.
This means that if any part of your trip is cancelled, or your hotel or airline goes bust, you will be entitled to a full refund or, if you are already abroad, repatriation.
The problem with booking a hotel room on its own is that if anything goes wrong, your contractual agreement is not with the website but with the provider of the service.
As Trivago points out: “Trivago is a hotel search with an extensive price comparison. The prices shown come from numerous hotels and booking websites.
“This means that while users decide on Trivago which hotel best suits their needs, the booking process itself is completed through the booking sites (which are linked to our website).”
I have nothing against such sites. Indeed, for my travels I often use them to get really good deals on hotel rooms, better often than going direct.
What is interesting from a diving perspective is how this business model is now creeping into the diving market. To explore this development further, I typed “liveaboard diving holiday” into Google.
What it brought up as Google Ads, listed in the order presented, was: Liveaboard.com; Diviac.com and Regaldive.
The rest of the search results (not Ads) were all established ATOL-authorised operators. Both Liveaboard.com and Diviac.com are booking websites and are not ATOL-authorised operators, whereas Regaldive is a tour operator that does provide ATOL protection.
I decided to explore the offer of the non-ATOL-covered sites, to see just how reliable they might be in circumstances in which the operator went bankrupt.
MY FIRST VISIT was to Liveaboard. com, which has a very professional-looking website boasting that it enables you to “Compare & Book 203 Liveaboards with 11251 Cruises easily online”.
While this appears to make it clear that this is a liveaboard comparison and booking site, as the small print reinforces, the “About Us” page states: “Our travel agents are passionate divers who have been to the destinations that we are selling. We provide you availability and prices on our website.”
I found this confusing. I would normally associate the term “travel agents” with package holidays, and if I’m going to one of the “destinations that we are selling” I would expect to be purchasing my liveaboard holiday (just the liveaboard, not the flight – they don’t offer the combination) from the business “selling” it – in this case liveaboard.com.
Could anyone at liveaboard.com clear up this confusion? I spoke to Fred, who later went on to describe his employer as a “Dutch-based company offering a 24-hour service”.
My enquiry was about booking a holiday on the Aggressor fleet in the Maldives. I deliberately chose Aggressor because it has been solidly established for many years and has in the past provided me with high-quality diving experiences.
Fred explained that the company acts as “official agents” on behalf of the Aggressor fleet and that any booking I made would be with Aggressor, not liveaboard.com.
This seemed both honest and precise – I was left in no doubt that I would be using a comparison site that would point me in the direction of the best deal available.
However, what I did find confusing was Fred’s explanation of what would happen with my money once I paid for the holiday if, far-fetched as it might seem, the Aggressor fleet were to go bankrupt.
At first Fred tried to persuade me that the Aggressor fleet had been around for decades and was highly unlikely to become bankrupt. I challenged him on this by quoting how “reliable” airlines such as Pan American and XL Airways as well as a number of holiday companies had gone bust in the past.
Conceding the point that any company can go bust, Fred explained in a rather confusing way that Liveaboard.com wouldn’t pay the second part of the payment if the Aggressor fleet went bankrupt – this despite claiming that it would “never take a credit card payment”.
As far as I could make out, my contract would be with the Aggressor fleet, with Liveaboard.com’s role being more that of an introducing intermediary.
I LEFT LIVEABOARD.COM CONFUSED. Perhaps Diviac.com would be clearer with its offer of “The biggest selection of liveaboards – always the lowest price”? Once again, its website looks very professional – it even offers an “online account” from which to manage bookings.
Buried in the terms and conditions, Diviac.com makes it clear that it will “act as an intermediary between you and the service provider” and how, should any cancellation of the service occur, it “will act in accordance with the applicable policy specified by the dive-centre”.
All very clear – or so I thought until I spoke to Manuel from Diviac.com, which he described as “based in Switzerland”.
I asked him what would happen if the same liveaboard fleet should go bankrupt – would I be covered by ATOL?
He replied that he wasn’t “familiar with ATOL, I’ll have to look it up” but that “we have insurance like that but I don’t think it will go out of business”.
It was time to press further, so I asked where on the website I could find this information.
Manuel’s reply of “I don’t think we put it on the website, I’ll have to find out who it is with… but Swiss law will cover you” did not fill me with confidence.
In Diviac.com’s terms and conditions it makes clear that all arrangements are with the dive-operator, so to tell me how I would be insured in a similar way to ATOL was in my opinion to offer advice that was grossly misleading.
There are a number of other comparison/booking sites that focus on the dive industry: Divebooker is based in the USA (so why would I use it?) and Norway’s DivePlanet.biz offers a full diving package-holiday service.
However, the ATOL-type protection it offers would be subject to Norwegian law, because this is the country in which it is provided and from which it is regulated.
Why would I want to run the risk of a holiday being cancelled and having to go through a foreign system to make a claim?
Closer to home is Liveaboardsrus.com which, like the other booking/comparison sites, make it clear in its T&C that “the operators are sole contract partners and contractual partners for all of your concerns, questions and disputes”.
Which is just as well, because nowhere on the Liveaboardsrus.com site can you find a contact telephone number if you did have a question.
Perhaps you could call in at its office? Like its telephone number, this isn't revealed on the site other than deep within the T&Cs, where you’ll find its registered office (from Google Streetview) sharing the same address as a B&B in Swanage, Dorset. Liveaboardsrus.com is also described in the T&Cs as a “website owned by ScubaClick Ltd”.
A search on the Company’s House website shows this business, as of the latest filing period ending 31 March 2016, to be a dormant company, which means that it is one that has had no significant accounting transactions during this accounting period.
WHAT THE RESULTS of this enquiry into the plethora of diving-related booking sites has demonstrated is a real concern that if anything goes wrong with your booking, you might find it difficult to find any redress.
I don’t doubt that they are all above board and that their owners have every intention of providing a reliable service, but with so many apparent cracks penetrating deep into how some of these businesses are run, I’d far rather trust my own hard-earned money to a business with a track record, and all of the right consumer protections in place.
Regaldive was one of the businesses that appeared at the top of my original Google search, so just to balance things out, I gave it a call.
Booking a holiday suddenly became simple again, as Nigel from the company explained how as a tour operator it is responsible for every stage of your holiday, and how if anything were to go wrong, such as bankruptcy, the monies paid are protected by the ATOL guarantee. I would be entitled to a full refund or would be repatriated.
Of course, you have to make up your own mind on with whom to book, because you might just find a bargain on one of the booking/price-comparison sites, just as I’ve found bargains in the past with hotel-related sites.
However, in these early days of this emerging side of the dive-travel business, I would urge caution, and recommend that you do your homework first.