Tourists are being told to ditch online hotel booking sites and contact hotels by phone after an investigation found such sites are still skewing search results, using pressure tactics and claiming false discounts - despite a major clampdown from the authorities.
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 and 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 - despite in some cases, as many as 50 rooms still being available.
The companies - which all agreed to the changes - will not have action taken against them until September, but a report from Which? found that many leading booking sites have not taken any steps towards improving their service.
Experts said that customers should bypass online sites altogether and contact their preferred hotel by phone to ensure that they get the best deal.
Rory Boland, editor of Which? Travel, 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.”
The group warned that pressure tactics such as ‘one room left at this price’ and ‘booked four times in the last 24 hours’ could manipulate customers into parting with their cash quickly by giving the impression that the offer is time-limited.
Around two in five people surveyed by Which? said that seeing a prompt that said ‘only one room left on our site’ would influence their decision to book.
Which? researchers found that 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.
Meanwhile, 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 offering the same room for £240 – £4 cheaper than Expedia.
A CMA spokeswoman said that further action would be taken if the sites did not comply by September.
She said: “Six of the largest hotel booking sites have already committed to bring an end to misleading sales tactics and hidden charges.”
“Trivago said: “Now that the CMA has established clear guidelines for the UK sector, we will of course follow them.”