Major hotel booking sites are still skewing search results, using pressure tactics and claiming false discounts despite a major crackdown, 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.
According to a new investigation by Which?, major hotel booking sites are still skewing search results, using pressure tactics and claiming false discounts despite a major crackdown
And it doesn’t look like they’re changing their tactics early ahead of the September 1 deadline to comply.
An investigation by the consumer champion found that the sites are still using these methods to put pressure on holidaymakers to book during the summer holiday season.
It comes 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.
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 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 en-suites 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.
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. When a Which? researcher clicked through, the ‘pricier’ site was actually offering the same room for £240 – £4 cheaper than Expedia
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 en-suites for the same price
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, Which? claims it’s all too easy to miss the word ‘sponsored’ in paid-for listings.
Meanwhile, it says 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, they say 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, says Which?
To secure the best deal, Which? is advising consumers to contact their chosen hotel directly by phone.
It is only when customers hover over the yellow thumbs up that they are told that it is a sponsored listing
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 are 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.’
A spokesperson for Trivago said: ‘Trivago compares the hotel prices we receive from many different booking sites according to the dates specified by each customer. There are occasionally differences between prices and we are working to mitigate these effects so that each and every customer can find their ideal hotel.
‘We appreciated the opportunity to work with the CMA over the past year to establish a single road map for online travel companies in the UK. Of note, the CMA made no finding that the practices of any site were misleading and we made no admission in this respect.
‘We see the broad applicability of the guidelines to all UK online travel companies as a positive development for us and the industry. Now that the CMA has established clear guidelines for the UK sector, we will of course follow them to the extent they are applicable to us.’
A spokesperson for Expedia Group, on behalf of Expedia, Hotels.com and ebookers, said: ‘Expedia Group continuously aims to deliver attractive travel options at affordable prices in transparent, clear and easy to understand ways, so that our customers can make informed travel choices.
A room at the Grand Hyatt New York Hotel was advertised on Agoda for £189 a night. But when investigators clicked through to the payment page, they say 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
‘That’s why we have invested significant time and energy into working closely with the CMA to create a helpful industry standard for all UK booking sites offering accommodation search and booking services.
‘We gave commitments to the CMA on a voluntary basis and the CMA in turn closed its investigation in respect of the Expedia Group with no admission or finding of liability.
‘We have a two-decades’ old commitment to putting travel data and details in the hands of consumers, to make travel easier, more attainable, more accessible and more enjoyable. This mission is core to what we do on our Expedia, ebookers and Hotels.com sites here in the UK.
‘As we always look for better ways to serve our customers and the broader travel community, we are proud to have been part of this new industry standard which supports UK customers with their online booking journey.’
MailOnline Travel has also contacted Booking.com and Agoda for comment.