Which? is warning holidaymakers off using online travel booking and price comparison sites after they fared poorly in its latest user survey.

The consumer watchdog advised holidaymakers were better off booking direct with the travel provider or with a trusted tour operator. No mention was made of travel agents.

Rory Boland, editor of Which? Travel, said: “Booking sites have been seen as a hassle-free way to find the best deal on travel or accommodation when booking a holiday, but our survey highlights serious problems, from dodgy refund policies and unwelcome admin fees, to non-existent customer service.

“This year has shown us that nothing can be guaranteed when it comes to booking a holiday, so it’s more important than ever to ensure the company you’re booking with can be trusted with your money.

“With a couple of notable exceptions, booking sites have let their customers down on this front, so the best way to ensure your money is in safe hands is to book a package, hotel or flight directly, and only with a reputable provider.”

Which? surveyed nearly 5,000 of its members about their experiences with various travel booking sites.

These were placed into three distinct categories: flight booking sites, accommodation booking sites, and travel comparison sites.

Respondents rated sites on criteria including functionality, prices and transparency of fees, with many sites earning an overall lower score than they did last year.

Which? said the survey highlighted “a slew of problems with using booking sites” which it said had been exacerbated by the Covid pandemic.

Flight specialist sites came in for particular criticism for their handling of refunds, such as charging administration fees when airlines did not.

Netflights achieved the highest customer score in this category of 65%, under the 70% required to be a Which? Recommended provider.

The Dnata Travel-owned brand was the only flight booking site to score four stars for prices, and fewer than one in 10 customers reported a problem with the website.

The site scored three stars for customer service, however, and Which? said it was processing refunds in 45 days, as opposed to the legal requirement of seven days for cancelled flights.

EDreams ODIGEO brand Opodo came bottom in the survey for the second year running, scoring 41% and two stars for customer service.

Which? has recently recommended passengers avoid booking with Opodo after it left the Atol scheme.

Skyscanner came out top among flight comparison sites with a customer score of 67% and the only to receive a five-star rating in any of the categories.

Expedia-owned brand Travelocity featured in the survey despite being little used outside of the US, with a customer score of 43% and two stars in every category.

Only firms in the accommodation booking category achieved a customer score of more than 70%, and most scored four stars in at least one category.

Airbnb came out top with a customer score of 75% and five stars for customer service and prices.

Which? said it was impressed with its free cancellation filter, “transparent and upfront refund policies” and flexible rebooking and refund options.

Lastminute.com came bottom for the third year running, scoring just 55% and only three stars across each category. It also received 46% as a flight-booking site.

Which? advised “anyone looking to book a holiday to book a package holiday with a trusted tour operator, or if that’s not suitable, book directly with the airline or hotel rather than through a booking site.

“With a few exceptions, you are more likely to get better customer service, better refund options if your travel plans are cancelled, and better prices if you go straight to the travel or accommodation provider.”