UK regulators scrutinize travel booking portals

The UK Competition and Markets Authority announced that hotel-booking websites could be going against the provisions of the consumer protection law.
29 June 2018

Do you trust your travel booking app? Source: Shutterstock

Have you been motivated to make a booking at a hotel because you’ve seen how many other people are “looking” at the same property?

Well, that, among other things, is now being scrutinized by legislators in the UK.

According to Bloomberg, The UK Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) said that the discount claims, hidden charges, pressure selling, and online search ranking tactics that some of the hotel-booking websites employ could break consumer protection law.

Although the regulator didn’t identify the websites it was looking into, Bloomberg believes that the regulator is turning to consumer-protection after a previous anti-trust probe into Expedia, and InterContinental hotels.

Chief Executive Andrea Coscelli of the CMA pointed out that booking sites can make it easier to choose a holiday, but only if people are able to trust them.

Holidaymakers must feel sure they’re getting the deal they expected, whether that’s securing the discount promised or receiving reliable information about the availability of rooms.

Obviously, it’s also important that no one feels pressured by misleading statements into making a booking. It’s one of the most basic principles of ethics.

“That’s why we’re now demanding that sites think again about how they’re presenting information to their customers and make sure they’re complying with the law. Our next step is to take any necessary action – including through the courts if needed – to ensure people get a fair deal,” said Coscelli.

The CMA elaborated about some of the marketing tactics and business practices it is concerned with:

Search results: How hotels are ranked, for example to what extent search results are influenced by factors that may not be relevant to the customer’s requirements, such as the amount of commission a hotel pays the site.

Pressure selling: Whether claims about how many people are looking at the same room, how many rooms may be left, or how long a price is available, create a false impression of room availability or rush customers into making a booking decision.

Discount claims: Whether the discount claims made on sites offer a fair comparison for customers. For example, the claim could be based on a higher price that was only available for a brief period or not relevant to the customer’s search criteria, such as comparing a higher weekend room rate with the weekday rate for which the customer has searched.

Hidden charges: The extent to which sites include all costs in the price they first show customers or whether people are later faced with unexpected fees, such as taxes or booking fees.

Further, the CMA said that it has sent warning letters to a range of sites, demanding they review their terms and practices to make sure they are fair and comply with consumer protection law.

The authority has also referred the price guarantees and other price promises made by hotel booking sites to the Advertising Standards Authority and them to consider whether statements like ‘best price guarantee’ or ‘lowest price’ mislead customers and what conditions must be met for companies to make such claims.