What happens when hotel booking sites stop ‘misleading’ sales

The Competition and Markets Authority has clamped down on six hotel booking giants for high-pressure sales tactics and hidden fees, but what does that mean for consumers?Wednesday, April 17, 2019

By James Draven
Hotel booking sites

In the age of online comparison sites, it seems that consumers have more power and choice than ever. Hotel comparison sites like Agoda, Booking.com, Ebookers, Expedia, Hotels.com or Trivago show us the ‘one room left’ at a discounted price with ‘15 people currently looking’. Or a less-expensive-but-better hotel that appears further up the search rankings than the one we were originally considering.

After an investigation by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) in October 2017, the six hotel booking sites above have been the subject of CMA enforcement action. The watchdog found that consumers were routinely being misled by some booking sites with hidden charges; by discount claims that compared off-peak rates with high-season ones; by giving more prominence to hotels paying the most commission; by strategically placing sold out hotels within search results; and by falsely representing hotels’ popularity.

The CMA found booking sites used claims such as ‘15 other people are viewing this property’ when other users may actually be searching for different dates. Similarly, Which? Travel found that despite messages claiming there was only ‘one room left at this price’ there were up to 50 listings for rooms of a similar standard or price, and in some cases the difference only £5. These tactics rush customers into making booking decisions, preventing them from finding the best deals.

The CMA has given the six hotel booking giants until 1 September 2019 to change their ways. They must inform users if high search rankings have been affected by the amount of commission the hotel pays the site; to not give false impressions of the popularity or availability of hotels; to not make misleading discount claims; and to display all compulsory charges such as taxes, booking or resort fees in the headline price.

Although not all six companies engaged in all of these practices, they’ve all agreed to abide by the new rules. So does that mean we can trust them now?

Rory Boland, editor of Which? Travel, answers: “In short, no. After the CMA’s announcement we found one or more of the sites engaged in pressure selling, not displaying the total price of a room upfront, and listing discounts that don’t meet new criteria. They should do the right thing and introduce these changes sooner rather than later.”

Consumers should still be wary until the 1 September deadline. Hotel booking sites remain great for getting an idea of the hotels available and at what prices, but Boland says that doesn’t mean you need to book through them.

Q&A

Why were these sites singled out for investigation?
A Competition and Markets Authority Spokesperson said: “We analysed a large amount of information regarding various sites’ practices and pursued those sites that were the most well used and have the biggest impact on consumers.”

Have they broken the law?
The CMA hasn’t made a finding on whether the hotel booking sites’ practices have breached consumer law, which is a matter that only the courts can decide.

What happens if sites don’t comply with the new rules by 1 September?
The CMA said: ‘Following 1 September, if the CMA finds sufficient evidence that they could be breaking consumer protection law, it will consider taking further action.’

Who do these rules apply to?
A CMA spokesperson said: “The guidelines are for any business offering online accommodation booking services. This includes online travel agents, metasearch engines, big hotel chains and individual hotels.”

Published in the May 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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