Seven in ten of us use hotel booking websites such as TripAdvisor, Booking.com and Expedia and when shopping around for accommodation. These sites promise to help you compare prices quickly and find the best deals.
But an investigation by the competitions watchdog has found that customers may be being misled by bogus discounts, pressure selling and hidden fees.
Last week the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) warned that it may take legal action against a number of unnamed sites for breaking consumer protection laws.
Today Money Mail lays bare some of the brazen tactics used to trick you into paying over the odds.
Hotel booking website customers may be being misled by bogus discounts, pressure selling and hidden fees
Hotels That Pay To Be At The Top
Many holidaymakers think that if a hotel is ranked at the top of the list by a booking website it means that it has the best deal.
But where a hotel appears in the search results often has nothing to do with merit or price, but rather with how much commission they are paying the website.
Experts say booking sites typically charge companies between 15 per cent and 20 per cent of the cost of a room or holiday to be listed.
But hotel owners know that customers rarely scroll beyond the first three or four options on display — so they are desperate to appear near the top of the webpage.
Industry insiders told Money Mail that in order to secure a good position, some hotels pay booking sites twice the standard rate of commission — as much as 40 per cent, or £800 on a £2,000 holiday.
It means that holidaymakers who think they are getting the best deal may actually be paying far more than they need to for their room.
Nisha Arora, a senior director at the CMA, says: ‘We are concerned about the clarity and accuracy of these sites.
When you put in criteria (which room you want, when you want to stay), they are listed in a certain order. This is not only influenced by consumer preference but by commission — commercial considerations — and consumers might not be aware of this.’
When using booking sites to search for a hotel you are typically asked to enter a location, dates of travel and number of guests. A list of results will then appear — but this is often very muddled.
Expedia, for example, will display a ‘top choice’ or ‘daily deal’ at the top of the webpage. Below, hotel prices and ratings will be listed in what appears to be a random order.
Sites use a computer program (an algorithm) to rank deals, allocating a score to each hotel based on criteria including price, location, popularity, reviews and appearance. This score then helps to determine where the deal features on the page.
But firms admit that commission also impacts where hotels appear.
For example, Expedia says on its website: ‘The commission which a property pays us for bookings made through our sites is also a factor for the relative ranking of properties with similar offers.’
When Money Mail checked major booking sites, we found that cheaper and better-rated hotels can often appear below supposed best deals.
Expedia, for example, labels its top choice hotels as ‘recommended’.
Searching for a hotel in New York next month, Expedia ranked the 1 Hotel Central Park as its top choice. It had a score of 4.7 out of five and cost £1,160 for the four days.
However, the 33rd-ranked hotel, the Citizen M New York Times Square, has the same score and costs just £767 — £393 less.
On Booking.com, its favoured hotels are included in a section called ‘our top picks’. When searching for four nights in Malaga, Spain, in July, the Hotel Sercotel came top. It was ranked ‘very good’ and cost €405.
However, below it was the Hotel Sur Malaga that is also listed as ‘very good’ and costs just €330.
All sites offer the option of re-ordering search results by price, location or reviews. But the CMA says fewer than half of customers do so.
How To Get The Best Deal
- Re-order the list of hotels that you are presented with by the booking site to ensure you are looking at the best deals and not just their top picks. Options typically include ranking deals according to price, distance from the city centre and reviews.
- When you’ve found a hotel you like, check how much it costs on other booking sites as you may find a cheaper deal.
- Ignore discount claims and focus on whether you think you’re getting a good deal now.
- Once you are sure you’ve found the best price, take a screen shot of the offer by tapping the ‘Print Screen’ button. You can then paste this image into a Word document or email by pressing the Ctrl button and V at the same time.
- Next, contact the hotel direct and ask them if they can match the price or give you a better room. Send them the screen shot as proof.
- Invest in the Lonely Planet or Rough Guide travel books for reliable ratings.
Fake Discounts and Sales
Many booking sites claim to offer huge discounts which suggest customers are getting a bargain.
But according to the CMA, this is often not the case.
On Expedia, for example, Money Mail found a room at the Grand Hotel La Favorita in Sorrento, Italy, for one night in August.
The price appeared to be reduced to £350 from £441, which was written next to the current rate in grey lettering with a cross through it.
But, in fact, the room may never have cost £441 for that date.
When hovering the computer mouse over the higher figure, a message pops up that says: ‘This comparison price is the third highest price for this room type at this hotel (with the same length of stay and cancellation policy) that customers have found on our site during a 30-day window around the selected check-in date.’
This means that the higher price may have been the rate for a Saturday night when the customer was booking a weekday stay. Or for New Year’s Eve when booking for the beginning of December.
Money Mail also found that prices varied depending on the website. On Lastminute.com, the same type of room at the Sorrento hotel was £349. On Booking.com it was £279.
Government guidelines state that for something to be ‘on sale’, it must have been available at the higher price for 28 consecutive days unless the firm clearly explains why this isn’t the case.
Yet last year, Expedia offered a ‘flash sale’ on a two-night stay at the Ares Eiffel hotel in Paris.
Holidaymakers who think they are getting the best deal may actually be paying far more than they need to for their room
The discounted rate was £404 and the price then rose to £628 the day after the sale ended.
But according to research by Which?, a new 40 per cent-off promotion launched just two weeks later where the same stay cost £382.
Several sites urge shoppers to sign up to get cheaper deals. But Which? says discount claims given to members can also be misleading. In 2016 it found that Expedia was offering members an ‘exclusive price’ for a night at the Alsisar Hotel in Jaipur, India, at £17.29.
This rate had supposedly been reduced from £109. Yet on the hotel’s website the price for the same night’s stay was normally just £34.35.
The Cunning Countdown Con
When browsing hotels on booking sites, customers are bombarded with messages warning them to hurry up and make a decision.
Banners with red lettering proclaim, ‘In high demand’ and ‘We have just one room left’. The CMA has raised concerns over whether this gives a false impression.
Hotels allocate each booking site a set number of rooms to sell on. So while that website may only have one or two rooms left, the hotel could have dozens available.
Customers are also not told how many rooms were on offer to start with — so the site may only ever have had one room available.
Some hotels deliberately offer websites a small number of rooms to generate these alerts as they encourage panic buying. Another tactic is to tell customers a hotel has been ‘booked 15 times in the last 24 hours’.
Experts say that while it is probably true, these bookings are probably for different rooms for other dates in the year.
On top of this, sites fail to make it clear that just because lots of people are viewing a hotel does not mean they must book there and then. A hotel may have been viewed 50 times in a day. But if a customer knew that hotel has 1,000 rooms, they would be less likely to rush to book than if it only had ten.
Martyn James, of consumer website Resolver, says: ‘It’s high time the ‘countdown’ scam — where you’re told there’s only one room or flight left — is stamped out. Any tactic designed to panic you into a purchase without checking the deal thoroughly or being fully informed is a con.’
Beware Phoney Reviews
Booking sites are often the first stop for holidaymakers looking for honest opinions on where to stay. But industry experts say that up to 40 per cent of online reviews by people who claim to have been guests at hotels are unreliable.
Some travellers have returned home from their holiday to discover fake reviews have been left under their names.
In 2016, Tania Wittensleger had to complain to Booking.com after the manager of a Morocco hotel left a review in her name that said: ‘All in all a very good hotel. Lovely staff . . . keen on fulfilling even special requests.’
The problem is that hotels know how important reviews are to customers.
Booking.com says the opinion of online reviewers ranks third, after price and location, as the biggest influencer in a customer’s decision on where to book.
Ming Ooi, co-founder of Fakespot.com, a site dedicated to helping customers identify fake reviews, says: ‘Customers have been trained to use reviews as validation and won’t take action without them. Most customers will not buy anything that has no or very few reviews.’
A senior executive at one of the biggest hotel groups breached TripAdvisor rules in 2013 by posting dozens of glowing reviews about the firm’s properties — and negative ones of its rivals.
Peter Hook, who described himself on Twitter as ‘director of propaganda’ for Accor hotels in Asia and the Pacific, was caught out by TripAdvisor’s Facebook app.
Unlike the website, where reviewers can remain anonymous, the app displays a name, photograph and location, taken from the user’s Facebook account.
Cornish hotel The Cove was also temporarily blacklisted in 2011, after it was found to be bribing guests to leave good reviews.
The hotel provided guests with a letter asking them to post an ‘honest but positive’ review on TripAdvisor, in exchange for a room upgrade and 10 per cent off their next stay.
At the time, all but two of the hotel’s 26 reviews awarded top ratings.
TripAdvisor says all its reviews are screened prior to posting, adding that it has installed technology aimed at detecting those who try to circumvent this process, as well as receiving regular reports from the TripAdvisor community alerting it to any suspicious activity.
Don’t Swallow 5-Star Ratings
Star ratings are an important factor to consider when picking a hotel as they give a good indication of service and quality.
But not all countries have an official rating system. For instance, in Spain, each region has its own set of standards.
In some cases, sites such as Booking.com allow hotels to award themselves a rating, according to Which?. This can mean the customer ends up expecting a far higher standard than they get.
Money Mail found inconsistencies in the rating of the same hotel across different websites. Celebration Suites in Florida, for example, is listed as a three-star hotel on TripAdvisor and Booking.com. But the same hotel is given two-and-a-half stars on Thomas Cook’s website.
A Which? investigation in 2016 found that TripAdvisor gave the Courtyard Bridgetown Marriott hotel in Barbados three-and-a-half stars.
However, the same hotel is listed twice on Thomas Cook, once as Courtyard by Marriott Bridgetown, a four-star listing, and again as Courtyard Bridgetown, Barbados, where it has three stars.
And last year, Booking.com was found to have advertised the same hotel as a three-star and a four-star.
Thomas Cook no longer offers rooms at Courtyard by Marriott Bridgetown on its site.
Hotel booking sites also admitted to advertising the Hudson Hotel, near Central Park in New York, as a three-star and four-star venue under slightly different names, but with as much as a £5 difference per night, as part of a test looking at how star ratings affect bookings.
Go direct: Buying straight from a hotel can be 20 per cent cheaper than shopping around on third party sites
For British hotels, star ratings are decided by the AA and Visit Britain. Around 17 European countries use a system called Hotelstars, which is similar to the British model.
In the U.S., around 32,000 of the country’s 50,000 hotels are ranked using a diamond system rather than stars.
These official ratings systems are not to be confused with travellers’ ratings which can be found on booking sites. These are based on reviews from previous guests.
For reliable reviews, try the Lonely Planet and the Rough Guide travel books. These always use the official ratings system of the area you are visiting.
Watch Out For Hidden Fees
The watchdog has also raised concerns that booking sites do not show customers the full price of their trip as they browse.
Experts say that in some cases they fail to disclose local taxes of as much as 14 per cent, VAT and other fees until the customer is about to enter their payment details.
A common extra levy is the so‑called ‘resort fee’.
These are commonly charged by hotels in America and the Caribbean per person, per night.
For instance, website Ebookers gives a headline price of $869 per person in large print for a holiday to Miami Beach next month.
But in small print below it states that there is also a resort fee of up to $120.
Guy Anker, deputy editor of MoneySavingExpert.com, says: ‘You simply can’t always trust the first figure you’re shown.
‘It’s confusing for customers and makes doing a meaningful price comparison very hard.
‘As a result, many travellers may end up paying much more than they need to because they struggle to find the cheapest deal.’
Save a Fifth By Booking Direct
Buying straight from a hotel can be 20 per cent cheaper than shopping around on third party sites.
A night at the Modrian Park Avenue hotel in New York costs £217 on Booking.com.
Rivals Expedia and Hotels.com both offer double rooms at £191.
But if you go to the hotel website and book direct, the cost is $225 or £170 — £47 cheaper than through Booking.com. Previously hotels were banned from reserving their cheapest deals for direct customers under the so-called most favoured nation clause. It meant they had to offer the same rates across all booking sites, including their own.
But this clause has now been thrown out and many hotels are keen to encourage customers to cut out the middleman.
Experts say that even if you find that the price is not cheaper by going direct, take a screenshot of the best deal you’ve found and call them. They will often match the price and may even give you a better room.
Rory Boland, editor of Which? Travel, says: ‘Customers should not take the prices on these sites for granted. Use them as a comparison guide and then contact the hotels directly. They would rather get a direct sale because they avoid paying commission.
‘In return, they can at least match the cheapest online prices — or give you an even cheaper rate.’
A spokeswoman for Expedia says: ‘Expedia Group 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.
‘We will continue to engage with the CMA.’
A spokesman for TripAdvisor says: ‘We contributed to the CMA’s request for information and support efforts to ensure consumers have accurate information when planning and booking their trips.
‘We have not been informed of any enforcement action against TripAdvisor. We fight fake reviews very aggressively.’
A spokeswoman for Lastminute.com comments: ‘We’ve been engaging with the CMA throughout their investigation and very much welcome any review that gives clarity to consumers and creates a more level playing field. It is not our aim to mislead consumers.’
A spokesman for Booking.com says: ‘We are constantly optimising the consumer experience on our website and mobile apps in an ongoing effort to deliver a best-in-class experience for our customers.
‘We have cooperated with the CMA during their industry-wide investigation and we look forward to continuing to work with them to resolve any concerns they have.’
Booking.com adds that it deals with fake reviews ‘very seriously’ and removes them from its site.