‘Book now - only three rooms left’ - travel websites to be taken to task

UK’s competition watchdog to probe booking sites to see if they’re misleading consumers


We’ve all felt the pressure; you’re considering your options on where to stay for your next trip when a little icon appears on your chosen website, “30 people are looking at this room” or “in high demand -only three rooms left”. Expedia even gives a countdown to when the rate will expire. It’s a tool used by a host of travel booking websites to get you to book - and fast - but now the UK’s competition watchdog is launching an investigation into the practice, fearing it could be misleading.

On Friday, the Consumer Markets Authority (CMA), the UK’s primary competition and consumer authority, said it was launching an investigation into booking sites to find out whether their customers really are able to choose the best hotel deal for them. Popular travel booking websites include Booking. com, Expedia and Trivago.The scope of the probe will examine areas such as hidden charges, search results, and discount claims.

The CMA said it is concerned about the “clarity, accuracy and presentation of information on sites, which could mislead people, stop them finding the best deal and potentially break consumer law”.

“We are concerned that this is not happening and that the information on sites may in fact be making it difficult for people to make the right choice,” Andrea Coscelli, chief executive of the CMA said.

Of particular interest to the CMA is how hotels are ranked after a customer has entered their search requirements. For example, to what extent are these influenced by the amount of commission a hotel pays the site? Also of note is “pressure selling”, whereby consumers may be rushed into making a booking after being informed that “just three rooms are left” or “15 other people are looking at this”. Discount rates - and the rate they were originally discounted from - is also under review, as are hidden charges, whereby not all the costs are shown in the initial price.

The CMA has already spent a year studying online comparison tools, which it says can also be misleading to consumers. The regulator found that consumers needed to hunt for deals on these sites, in the same way as they do for energy, holidays or insurance.