Major hotel booking sites are still skewing search results, using pressure tactics and claiming false discounts despite a major clampdown, according to new Which? research.
In February, Expedia, Booking.com, Trivago, Hotels.com, Agoda and Ebookers were all named and shamed by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) for employing unfair practices.
The sites were ordered to stop using measures that could mislead customers, including not displaying the full cost upfront, giving a false impression of a room’s popularity and dishonestly claiming that rooms are discounted.
However, with the deadline to comply not until September 1st an investigation by the consumer champion has found the sites are still using these dubious tactics to put pressure on holidaymakers to book during the summer holiday season.
That’s three years after Which? Travel first highlighted the problem.
On Trivago’s website, a deal with Expedia to stay at Paris’s Millesime hotel was £244 in February – advertised as a saving of 63 per cent. But that was only the case if compared with the most expensive price (£675) available on another site, not the average.
Even worse, when a Which? researcher clicked through, the ‘pricier’ site was actually offering the same room for £240 – £4 cheaper than Expedia. So Trivago’s discount claim was not only inaccurate – it was also more expensive.
From September, all savings must be genuine – so a sales pitch like this from Trivago could land the company in court.
Pressure tactics such as ‘one room left at this price’ and ‘booked four times in the last 24 hours’ can manipulate customers into parting with their cash quickly by giving the impression that the offer is time-limited.
In fact, around two in five (44%) Which? Members told Which? that seeing a prompt that said ‘only one room left on our site’ would influence their decision to book.
However, in some cases, Which? found that there were more than 50 rooms available. For example, when Booking.com was advertising ‘the last’ double room with private external bathroom at the Balmore Guest House in Edinburgh, there were, in fact, another seven doubles available with ensuites for the same price.
From September, the CMA is forcing sites to tell the ‘whole story’ and not use false or misleading claims about popularity and availability. Until then, consumers should take prompts like this, as well as ‘x number of people looking’ with a pinch of salt.
The regulator also says booking sites must start to clearly differentiate between sponsored and unsponsored listings by the deadline.
At the moment, properties pay a premium for a prominent position at the top of the page. But this is not always made clear to holidaymakers.
On eBookers and Expedia, it’s all too easy to miss the word ‘sponsored’ in paid-for listings.
Meanwhile, the only clue on Booking.com is a yellow thumbs-up icon. Hover over it and a pop-up explains that this hotel ‘might pay Booking.com a bit more’ – but only for those who bother to read all the blurb.
Until the new rules come into force, Which? recommends that users filter searches by price or location, which should sift out the site’s sponsored links.
Which? also found Agoda was duping customers with unclear pricing when researchers checked in February.
A room at the Grand Hyatt New York Hotel was advertised for £189 a night. But when investigators clicked through to the payment page, a £30 hotel tax and service fee suddenly materialised.
The small print went on to reveal that a £27 ‘destination fee’ would also be collected at the property. Suddenly that nightly rate had soared by £57, a 30 per cent increase.
While the six sites all agreed to voluntarily comply with the new rulings, the CMA gave them more than six months to make the changes – leaving hundreds of millions of holidaymakers at risk of falling for these dodgy sales tactics while booking their summer holidays.
To secure the best deal, Which? is advising consumers to contact their chosen hotel directly by phone.
Many hotels – especially smaller independents – are banned from undercutting the prices posted on booking sites as a condition of their contracts with the online travel giants.
But Which? experts have found most will gladly offer a cheaper stay or alternative perk to secure a booking from customers who call quoting prices they have seen online.
Rory Boland, Which? Travel editor said:
“These sites have been getting away with dodgy sales practices for years and while the regulator’s intervention is a positive step, millions of holidaymakers still going to be duped this summer before any changes are made.
“You’re usually better off calling the hotel directly for the best rate anyway – even if it can’t beat the price it will usually offer an incentive, discount or even a bottle of champagne to sweeten the deal.”
Notes to Editors:
In January and February 2019, Which? looked for examples of the four areas of bad practice identified by the CMA’s enforcement action
On 6th February 2019, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) took action last year because it was concerned that practices such as giving a false impression of a room’s popularity or not displaying the full cost of a room upfront could mislead people, stop them finding the best deal and potentially break consumer protection law.
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