Buyer BEWARE: Always tally up your OTA bookings with your airline invoices (for being overcharged!)

What a month it has been. I’ve been almost on the road for most of the past thirty days or so, first in Mumbai for a week for some meetings (as it always happens, last minute!), and then back and off to France for meetings again. So, when I got back to Delhi, where I am spending some time with my parents these days, I also got down to doing some of the most uninteresting parts of my life, not trip reports, but trip expense reports!

Now, I usually keep this part private since this involves poring over credit card statements and matching them with receipts to know what needs to be claimed and where to be paid. Since I don’t have an assistant, however, I have to do it myself. However, from time to time, it gives me some great insights reminding me why this boring stuff needs to be done.

How does OTA Ticketing Work?

Now, to give you some context into how ticketing via OTAs works, from what I understand from the outside. Whenever a ticket fare is retrieved (whether booked or not), the OTA caches it for future reference. If someone else makes the same request, which might be happening a lot on high-frequency routes such as Mumbai – Delhi, they serve up the same results again instead of making the same query again. These fares are only cached for a period as small as 15 minutes, I believe, but then someone on the inside needs to tell me if this is correct or not. This is simple database management, something I’ve studied way back in school and then in college.

Once you are proceeding with a booking, the systems of the OTA reach out to the airline systems again to confirm that the said number of seats are still available at the quoted price. Remember, everything happens in milliseconds, just like your stock trading systems. Hence, it could well be that there was only one seat available at a particular price point and five different people looking to book it simultaneously, so it is the one with the “fastest finger first.” This is where your fares sometimes go up after you see them at a lower price.

One of the new trends, basis two incidents in the past thirty days, I’m noticing, is when I pay higher for tickets when booked via an OTA, and the airline tickets a low price. This might be something that is not happening out of intention but more like systems tripping up. Still, it sure is happening more often than you think if you are a regular OTA shopper, fishing for that discount that Online Travel Agencies use as the hook as they try and get you to book the next ticket.

Example 1: Cleartrip overcharges by ~INR 2500

There was a pretty last minute trip we planned up for Mumbai. Shipra had some HDFC Bank Infinia points due to expire on her statement, so we figured we’d consume those in the process and pay the rest in cash. Hence, we headed to the HDFC Bank Smartbuy portal and booked a ticket from there. As is usual, we got a couple of fare quotes, both the same amount or maybe a rupee here or there, and we proceeded to book with Cleartrip.

The flight flew, and I got the invoice from the airline eventually. Having seen the ticket and the eventual invoice, this was very interesting to note, a considerable difference in the fare we thought we paid and the invoice eventually generated by the airline.

For instance, here is the ticket generated by HDFC Smartbuy (booked via Cleartrip) that we received. I’ve greyed out the irrelevant stuff.

And here is the invoice from SpiceJet, which typically arrives almost instantaneously if you have quoted a GSTIN number on the ticket.

There was a difference of INR 2,445 between the price we paid for the ticket and Cleartrip further paid SpiceJet for the ticket. Now, my best guess is that for some reason, as Cleartrip was communicating with SpiceJet, somewhere, a lower fare class opened up, and that seat got sold to us. I would have usually not opened the invoice till later in the month, but I was bored, and I had nothing to do in a spare moment, and hence I did. And it did leave me rubbing my eyes for a few minutes before I could be sure about what might have happened (there went my moment of boredom!)

However, it was not like Cleartrip or HDFC Bank volunteered this information to us and paid us back on their own. I raised this case via Social Media with Cleartrip. Even HDFC Bank got involved, calling us and taking down the details. A few days later, 12 to be precise, we got word that the refund would be issued.

I’ve circled back to them querying to explain to me exactly what happened and what they intended to do with this money, in case I did not discover this discrepancy. I’ll let you know if I hear something. But, the issue was resolved in our favour.

Example 2: MakeMyTrip overcharges by ~INR 900

On this very same last-minute trip, everything was happening as we went along. One fine day, as we finished up work, we figured we were good to fly back the next day. So, again, we had to book a last-minute trip on our way back. Since flight prices are pretty stable these days because of the government regulations, it does not work any other way if you book last minute or weeks out (ever since this incident, however, GoI has changed laws and you can expect cheaper fares if you book over 15 days out).

Coming to this incident. Now, in this case, MakeMyTrip was sending me some irritating reminders on the phone about how they would extend my MMT Black status (pretty useless, I know!) if I made one booking with them. And somehow, on a busy day, clubbing it with the More Value promotion from American Express, I decided to book my Mumbai – Delhi ticket via MakeMyTrip.

The ticket came through, and there was even a discount that MMT offered, which I thought I had taken, and I flew away the next day. For Vistara, GST usually get updated +3 days from booking. I got back, checked if Vistara had generated the invoice, which was not the case, and then I left for France. And I forgot about it till I got back and got around to making those boring expense sheets.

Here is an excerpt of the ticket generated by MakeMyTrip, specifically the payment part. You will notice that MMT quoted us INR 5,943 for the ticket and INR 290 as its fee to ticket this.

The alarm bell started ringing in my head when I saw the MakeMyTrip Tax Invoice, and the Service Charge looked extremely high. Now an MMT Tax Invoice has a lot of things that I’d have to grey out, so I am just putting out the payment part for you, which got my attention.

Do you notice that INR 290 magically became INR 549 (inclusive of GST?).

Anyhow, I finally got around to downloading the GST Invoice from the Vistara website, compared this price with the price on the GST Invoice, and it tallied up.

If you do the maths, even with the INR 5129 and an INR 290 service charge, I was still out of pocket on this ticket (total charge should have been INR 5129 + INR 290 – INR 555 = INR 4864, and MMT’s computers conveniently pocketed the difference as more Service Fees. The difference, in this case, was INR 884.

Again, it was not like MakeMyTrip volunteered this information to us and paid it back on their own. I raised this case via Social Media with MakeMyTrip’s Customer Card handle. We have gotten word that the refund will be issued.

Bottomline

That is how you make boring expense reports more interesting. By creating more work for yourself by discovering that you got overcharged. Kidding! If you are a big user of OTAs to squeeze every penny out of your credit card discounts, you need to take note of this. Somewhere between the connectivity of the OTAs and the airlines, there lies the potential of your tickets being repriced on the back of split-second movements between ticket prices. Make sure to compare the invoice with the price you paid to see if there is no error made against you. And while I usually don’t ask for it, make sure to share this post on your social media so that more people know that this could happen to them.

Have you seen such a case happen to you where the OTAs overcharged you, and have you managed to get a refund if it did happen to you?


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About Ajay

Ajay Awtaney is the Founder and Editor of Live From A Lounge (LFAL), a pioneering digital platform renowned for publishing news and views about aviation, hotels, passenger experience, loyalty programs, travel trends and frequent travel tips for the Global Indian. He is considered the Indian authority on business travel, luxury travel, frequent flyer miles, loyalty credit cards and travel for Indians around the globe. Ajay is a frequent contributor and commentator on the media as well, including ET Now, BBC, CNBC TV18, NDTV, Conde Nast Traveller and many other outlets.

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Comments

  1. Thanks Ajay, checked and I also got “overcharged” Rs 1680/- with smartbuy+cleartrip recent booking. Have taken it up with cleartrip twitter account. I checked few older transactions and strangely i see indigo invoice showing total fare a few hundred more than what smartbuy+cleartrip collected. Not sure how they reconcile their accounts.

  2. Ajay, can’t thank you enough for this post. I discovered that I have been overcharged almost Rs. 8,830 by Cleartrip through smartbuy booking. Have raised this with HDFC Concierge and will update on the same.

  3. Yes Ajay, I have faced this issue a couple of times while booking with Infinia points. The refund takes a while to be credited into the account after you raise a complaint with the requisite documentation.

  4. Have seen this a few times.. especially around 1500-2k difference .. have a feeling like how travel agents buy fares for a route in bulk and then sell based on the current days prices hence earning a high profit (all fair), the OTAs must be doing something similar quietly and differently and without being questioned 99.9% of the time pocket the money.. I still prefer my preferred travel agent whom I can call 247 and have a personal approach and the feeling of a fair deal , also giving him business in the process..

  5. Dear Ajay
    I am facing the same situation.. For a flight of Rs 11994 , I have been charged 29404 by cleartrip through smartbuy…
    How do I go about raising this concern??

    • @Vyom, I’ve already written what I did. As long as you have proof that you were overcharged, you could follow the same approach. Remember to have an invoice or something, not just an “I saw it on another website being cheaper”.

      • @ajay
        on downloading the invoices for my previous booking, I found one more discrepancy and called up yatra.. they acknowledged and immediately issued a refund email of 3000 INR..
        Cleartrip people were more adamant, I have now written to cleartrip and smartbuy with the details , waiting for their reply.. this amount is 17000INR..
        Clearly some fishy business is going on with smartbuy as on both of my last bookings I have been overcharged..

  6. HDFC Cards created Smartbuy to add premium on these booking. lucky that they are willing to pay back the difference. How do we manage this with hotel booking. If we book with OTAs or with the hotels directly the price comes minimum 20% cheaper than the redemption price shown for Hotels search in Smartbuy for Diners cards. if we can get the invoice from hotel directly we can try this.

    • @SK, In my case it was some sort of slippage. But if you can book the hotel 20% cheaper elsewhere, then why are you booking with Smartbuy? Go book directly?

      • Got the note that I have lot of points expiring in this billing cycle. So I am forced to use the points in someway. I searched for hotels and that is when I saw the difference.

  7. I’ve been trying to follow up with Flipkart for over 2 months now, wherein they overcharged me Rs.500 on a regional (9I) flight. The thing that irritates me and baffles me the most is that their executives are absolutely unhelpful and even fail to comprehend what has happened. Sigh! I have almost 50 mails from them assuring of a resolution in 48 hours but then again, another mail slides in and nothing happens.

    I’m avoiding them like a plague for any future business.

  8. Just curious at the time of booking did you check with the airline website directly what was the price of the ticket? Twice in the past I have seen Smartbuy pricing the ticket higher for the same fare class compared to the airline website. I went ahead and booked directly with the airline.

    • @Manish, I don’t remember to be honest, since this discovery happened post facto. And the key is, while this might be a known issue with Smartbuy, it also happens at other OTAs.

  9. Very interesting! I just booked using Infinia points as well. How do I get an invoice from the airline if I do not have a GST number to invoice ?

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