THE Co-operative Group's Travelcare business is calling on the Government to force big travel chains to reveal their links with major holiday groups to customers.
The Movement's biggest travel agency says in its new Holiday Report 2003 that UK holidaymakers are being hoodwinked into paying hundreds of pounds over the odds for their summer breaks by travel agents keen to sell their "own-brand" holidays.
This is the disturbing conclusion of an independent survey commissioned by Travelcare, which reveals that agents who are part of bigger holiday groups are short-changing customers by not giving them choice.
The researchers' "mystery shopping" exercise found that sunseekers could have paid over £ 250 more than they needed for a summer break because they weren't made aware of all the options.
React Surveys checked out 51 travel agency branches located near four UK airports ? Gatwick, Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow ? taking in Lunn Poly, Thomas Cook, Going Places and Travel Choice, all part of bigger travel companies, as well as Travelcare.
The mystery shoppers asked for details of a specific family holiday commonly available in the brochures of several different holiday companies. A `hoodwink` rating for each chain was then compiled ? the higher the rating, the harder researchers had to push staff to give them a choice.
Thomas Cook had the dubious honour of having the highest score.
The Holiday Report reveals that many people are unaware of the commercial links between travel agents and holiday companies. Further research carried out for the report showed that many people mistakenly believe that Lunn Poly, Thomas Cook, Going Places and Travel Choice are independent agents.
In fact, Lunn Poly is part of the TUI Group which supplies Thomson Holidays; Going Places is part of the MyTravel organisation which sells Airtours holidays; Thomas Cook is part of a group which owns jmc as well as selling Thomas Cook holidays; Travel Choice is part of a company which supplies First Choice holidays.
The issue of "directional selling" of holidays has long been of serious concern to independent travel agents and holiday companies alike.
Latest industry figures for the Summer 2003 season show that 71 per cent of holidays sold by Lunn Poly are supplied by Thomson; 79 per cent of Going Places sales are made up by Airtours products; 74 per cent of Thomas Cook sales are Thomas Cook brands; and First Choice holidays make up 66 per cent of sales through its own retail outlets.
Martin Garland, Chairman of AITO (the 150-strong Association of Independent Tour Operators) backs Travelcare's call for tighter regulation.
He said: "While we can understand the commercial reasons for directional selling, consumers should be made aware that the holiday being offered is a product of the same company when they book.
"In the financial sector, people selling products have to disclose if they are affiliated to a particular company. The current measures in place in the travel sector are ineffective."
Travelcare has sent a copy of the Holiday Report to the Office of Fair Trading, calling for action.
"There are few things holidaymakers hate more than getting to their destination only to find the couple next door in the hotel have got the same holiday for hundreds of pounds less," said Travelcare General Manager Amanda Williams.
"We respect the right of big holiday groups to sell their own-brand holidays through their own outlets but consumers deserve choice. Notices in travel branches or in brochures making ownership links clear simply don't tell the whole story."
? The Holiday Report 2003 is available in Travelcare's 390 branches nationwide or visit: www.travelcare.co.uk