Leading hotel booking sites including Expedia, Trivago, and Booking.com have vowed to clean up their acts after a Competition & Markets Authority investigation found that they regularly engage in pressure selling, offer misleading discounts and prioritise hotels which pay the biggest commissions.
The CMA said the tactics used by the six firms – which also include Hotels.com, ebookers and Agoda – could prevent customers finding the best deals in practices that could amount to breaches of consumer law.
In particular it was concerned that practices such as giving a false impression of room popularity or not displaying the full cost of a room upfront were misleading.
All companies under investigation have voluntarily agreed to make changes, which must be implemented by September 1 at the latest.
These changes included a commitment to make it clearer how hotels are graded, including whether hotels paying the ranking sites more have received a position higher up the list.
They have also agreed to not give a false impression of a hotel’s popularity to rush customers into making a booking and to be clear about discounts and only promoting deals that are actually available at that time.
The CMA found sites comparing a higher weekend room rate with a weekday rate or comparing the price of a luxury suite with a standard room.
CMA chairman Andrew Tyrie said: “The CMA has taken enforcement action to bring to an end misleading sales tactics, hidden charges and other practices in the online hotel booking market. These have been wholly unacceptable.
“Six websites have already given firm undertakings not to engage in these practices. They are some of the largest hotel booking sites. The CMA will now do whatever it can to ensure that the rest of the sector meets the same standards.”
However, Hilary Stephenson, managing director at digital design company Sigma, called the practices “the tip of the iceberg”.
She added: “It’s something we believe is happening across the entire travel industry, as well as in retail and others: that websites are designed with ‘mind tricks’ to confuse consumers into making a purchase.
“Consumers are becoming extremely savvy when it comes to online booking. They are no longer as easily influenced by clever advertising and marketing messages – so it appears that brands are having to find different ways to encourage them to spend more money. Unfortunately, it seems that these tactics may now be increasingly manipulative.
“The CMA’s decision is a promising step forward but we advise consumers to be vigilant when browsing online. Always read the small print (even if it might not be immediately obvious where that is).”
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