Booked that low-cost fare online? You may be stranded

Imagine you've booked a flight online. Everything went perfectly: You found the seats without a problem, you got a confirmation, and everything seemed good to go.

Except you get screwed. When you show up at the airport, bags in hand, Ryanair, one of Europe's largest low-cost airlines, tells you nope, sorry, can't fly because of how you booked. You should have booked at our own website, it says. Take it up with the people who sold you the ticket.

Last week, that's what in store for some 3,500 passengers who booked on Ryanair, despite the fact they hold paid reservations. That's roughly the equivalent of about 27 full planeloads. And more rejections are coming, because as of Aug. 26, the cancellations become a matter of daily policy.

Ryanair has accused several big European travel websites of "scraping." Simply put, that's showing Ryanair's fares without having a deal in place first. Like Southwest here in the U.S., Ryanair isn't keen on offering its fares through every Tom, Dick, and Orbitz. It wants to reduce commissions and cut costs by selling as many as possible itself. So Ryanair's head, Michael O'Leary, has called these booking sites "scam artists." Government reps in both Italy and Spain have demanded to know just what O'Leary thinks he's doing.

Ryanair's main gripe, apparently, is that when someone books via another third-party site, the airline doesn't get the opportunity to milk its passengers for all those lucrative (and usually overpriced) add-ons like insurance, hotels, and rental cars. Another vital European low-cost carrier, EasyJet, says it also doesn't like "screenscrapers," but it one-ups them by charging an extra $11 on those bookings. It doesn't simply toss them in the garbage like Ryanair.

Sites that "scrape" airfare quotes without a deal in place may be shifty, but why make that the customer's problem? We're not talking about a black market here--it's legal to sell the tickets--so it's nearly impossible for the average joe to know when they have booked at a website that Ryanair won't like. The airline's stock answer is that your seat should always be booked with its own website. Of course, there's no way an average passenger would know there's any problem with doing otherwise until the deal's already been done with a third-party site.

One of the biggies to be hit is TUI, the parent of the prevalent British travel company Thomson that, perhaps not so coincidentally, also happens to own the major British air carrier Thomsonfly. You would think that booking an airline ticket with one of Britain's biggest travel sellers would be a safe bet.

Not when you book on Ryanair. Then again, the desperate grasping tactics of some of the low-cost airlines these days is not surprising. Ryanair has been moaning about oil prices and doomed profits for a while now.

It's one of those airlines that lures customers like a carnival barker, promising super-affordable prices like $18 each way, and then going wild with fees once passengers are on the hook. Ryanair's choice racket is the guess-your-weight game: If you fail to predict your luggage's weight correctly at the time of booking, you pony up big fees. For Ryanair, that's another $30 per bag up to only 33 pounds, then more after that. Extra fees are how a cheapie like Ryanair survives, and unlike many North American carriers, that was the case even before oil prices spiked.

Sure, the airlines have a right to make their money somehow. But Ryanair's fight is with these websites. Why take it out on their customers instead? Just another example of boneheaded airline behavior. More coming soon, no doubt.

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