Avoid the great ticket rip-off

With Christmas coming, you may be on the lookout for theatre or concert tickets to give as the perfect present. But how can you make sure you won't be ripped off?

Selling tickets has become big business and, unfortunately, the buying process is now littered with charges - many of which are regularly hidden away until the last minute.

The two most common charges you're likely to be hit with are booking fees and delivery fees. As far as delivery fees go, they vary widely and if your tickets are going to be sent out via recorded delivery – which is becoming increasingly common – the cost will depend on where you live and how quickly you need them.

While you can sometimes get around the delivery charge by printing your ticket out or scanning an electronic version through your smartphone at the venue, booking fees are a lot harder to avoid.

Booking fees are especially frustrating as all too often you think you're getting a good deal and then you get to the final stage of an online booking form and find you have to pay more.

Even the performers you're paying to see get annoyed by it. Comedian Jason Manford took to Facebook in September to vent his anger at an Oxford concert venue, after he found it was adding a £9 booking fee on top of the face value (£22.50) of tickets to one of his tour shows. He told fans: "Please, please, please do NOT buy these tickets. These booking agents are parasites of the highest order, overcharging you and making it look like it's the performer."

There is no standard charge used by ticketing retailers, either. For example, Ticketmaster, which sells tickets from event promoters, has a booking fee of around 11% a ticket on average, while Seatwave and Viagogo – which buy and sell tickets – levy a 15% booking fee.

With the prices of concert tickets rising sharply in recent years, many tickets now cost well over £100, even at face value. For example, buying a ticket from Viagogo for Michael Bublé's concert in Glasgow next March, would not only set you back £139.99, you would also have to pay another £21 as a booking fee.

So how do ticketing retailers justify the extra hefty charges?

We put that question to several companies and they blame the fees on the need to cover the costs of providing tickets – such as running their websites, call centres, and customer service teams.

The retailers also point out all of their fees are agreed in advance with the venue and/or the event organiser. And in many cases, the venue or event organiser takes a cut of the money.

That may be understandable but what about the fact some customers find themselves forking out for booking or delivery fees even when they print them out at home?

Ticketmaster explains that home-printed tickets must still be scanned and validated once you arrive at the venue by its machines. It says: "We install this technology at our own cost, as venues do not pay us to install the necessary equipment. The fees paid by the ticket buyer contribute to the cost of this service."

So is there any way to avoid the booking fee?

There are a couple, but not many. Consumer group Which? advises customers to buy tickets direct from the venue's box office where possible. But even then, it warns you should also try to pay with cash or by debit card as you will likely get hit with a fee for paying by credit card.

Another pricing issue that frequently puts ticket buyers' backs up is the fact that some websites sell tickets for much more than the face value – something you expect from blackmarket touts that shuffle about outside concert and sporting venues.

You can often find tickets to sold-out gigs available on ticketing websites, including Seatwave, at significantly inflated prices.

Ajay Chowdhury, chief executive of Seatwave, explains: "Ticket prices are a function of demand – as a result, some tickets go for more than face value, but many also go for less. We also provide sellers with tools that show the market value of their tickets over time to enable them to price their ticket appropriately."

Steve Roest, head of business development in Europe for Viagogo, adds: "It is completely legal to resell a ticket at more than the face value in the UK. On Viagogo, the seller sets the price of the ticket, which can be less, the same or more than they paid for the ticket. We want to encourage people to use our secure marketplace to sell their tickets at a price they're comfortable with. If we restricted ticket resale to face value, many people would turn back to the black market where no such restrictions – or indeed any protection for consumers – exist."

Booking fees may not always be called the same name. They will sometimes be called processing fee, commission, transaction fee, or order processing fee.

And once you finally get your hands on your tickets, customer problems don't stop there. For example, unlike the seven-day cooling off period customers buying goods online are normally entitled to, no such luxury exists for ticketholders. You can't change your mind, so once you have bought them you're usually stuck with them.

The exception is cancellation. If the performance you are due to attend is cancelled, you should be able to get your money back. The Society of Ticket Agents and Retailers (Star), the trade body for the entertainment ticketing industry, says: "Our members will ensure you are either offered tickets for a rescheduled performance or that you receive a refund of at least the face value." However, you may be unable to reclaim postage costs if you have already been sent the tickets.

If you are unable to attend the performance, the rules are slightly different, as typically you won't be able to get a refund or an exchange. However, Star says, if there is more than one performance of the event you're attending, like a West End show, "some sellers may be able to help by exchanging your tickets for another performance or, particularly for high-selling shows, offering them for resale".

Also, if you are unable to attend the event you have tickets for, you can resell them online, but you may be charged a fee for this. Viagogo and Seatwave both charge a 10% fee for selling tickets on their sites, while StubHub (part of eBay) charges a 12% fee.

Get Me In, Ticketmaster's marketplace, and Gumtree, don't charge a fee for selling on their sites, so if someone buys your tickets for £50 you will get the full £50 in return – though you may not have access to as much support as that available from the bigger ticketing companies. And remember, it's not legal to re-sell all tickets online. For example, you can't resell football tickets in the UK.

Some ticket sellers offer insurance when selling you tickets, which will give you added protection if you are unable to attend. For example, Ticketmaster offers 'Missed Event Ticket Insurance' from a third company, which will return 100% of the ticket price (up to a maximum of £1,000) to you if you can't attend due to reasons including illness, travel delays, traffic accidents and jury service. It costs £3.99 per ticket.

How to protect yourself against ticket fraud

Which? offers the following tips:

  • Find out from the event organiser, promoter or venue when and where tickets go on sale.
  • Check online for negative feedback on the ticket seller if using a site for the first time.
  • Ensure online payment pages begin with 'https'.
  • Pay by credit card: if the price of the transaction is over £100, you can get a refund.
  • Always read the terms and conditions.
  • If you are buying a football ticket, remember that it is illegal to re-sell it.
  • Check where the company's office is, that its landline is in this country, and that it has a proper address, not just a PO box.

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