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Travel websites still using unfair tactics ahead of summer holidays – Which?

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The watchdog has warned holidaymakers to be alert to the tactics ahead of a September 1 deadline to end misleading sales and hidden charges.

Plane flies into sunset

Major hotel booking sites are continuing to use tactics that could mislead customers despite a clampdown by the competition watchdog, a consumer group has warned.

Which? found sites are still skewing search results, using pressure tactics and claiming false discounts despite agreeing to a raft of changes to end misleading sales and hidden charges in February after a probe by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA).

Expedia, Booking.com, Trivago, Hotels.com, Agoda and Ebookers were all named by the CMA for employing unfair practices.

While all six sites voluntarily agreed to comply with the new rules, the CMA gave them until September 1 to make the changes.

Which? has warned holidaymakers to remain alert ahead of the summer season.

Screenshot of Trivago website
Which? highlighted the deal for the Millesime hotel in Paris (Which?/PA)

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%.

However, this was only the case if compared with the most expensive price (£675) available on another site, not the average.

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The investigation also found the ongoing use of pressure tactics such as “one room left at this price” and “booked four times in the last 24 hours”.

Which? found Booking.com advertising “the last” double room with private external bathroom at the Balmore Guest House in Edinburgh when there were another seven doubles available with ensuites for the same price.

Booking sites have also been told to clearly differentiate between sponsored and unsponsored listings by September to prevent some properties paying a premium for a prominent position at the top of the page.

Which? found it was “all too easy to miss” the word “sponsored” in paid-for listings on eBookers and Expedia while the only clue on Booking.com was a yellow thumbs-up icon which, when hovered over, expanded into a message explaining that the hotel “might pay Booking.com a bit more”.

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Screenshot of Booking.com
An offer for the Balmore Hotel in Edinburgh was also included in the report (Which?/PA)

Which? is advising consumers to filter searches by price or location, which should sift out the site’s sponsored links, and to contact their chosen hotel directly by phone to book.

The watchdog 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.”

Screenshot of preferred partner property
Which? found paid-for listings were not always obvious (Which?/PA)

A CMA spokeswoman said: “Six of the largest hotel booking sites have already committed to bring an end to misleading sales tactics and hidden charges, thanks to CMA action. Some have already made important changes.

“Our work hasn’t stopped there – we have written to all booking sites and hotel firms demanding that they fall in line with the same standards so people can be sure the deal they choose is the best one for them.

“All these sites have until September 1 to fully comply but if they don’t, the CMA is prepared to take further action against them.”

Trivago said: “We appreciated the opportunity to work with the CMA over the past year to establish a single roadmap for online travel companies in the UK.

“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.”

Expedia Group 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.

“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.”

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