Honest hotels

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Hotel booking sites can make it so much easier to choose a destination for a holiday or streamline a business trip, but only if the public is able to trust them. This looks like it will happen soon. Major travel websites have agreed to change the way they do business after a UK investigation found some of them were deceiving users. They have now agreed to follow a common set of guidelines. While at present they apply only to Britain, because tens of millions of people travel around the world every year, need to stay in hotels and use travel websites to find them, it is hoped that the new rules will apply elsewhere to help stem what often appear to be questionable practices being employed to book rooms.

The issues range from pressure selling, misleading discount claims and hidden charges. Almost everybody who travels falls into the traps. Some buyers are warned that other users are looking at the same hotel, giving them a false impression of a room’s popularity. In other cases, the full cost of the room is not displayed. And statements like “best price guarantee” or “lowest price” can mislead customers. What conditions must be met for companies to make such claims?

According to the new rules, hotels will now make it clearer how they are ranked after a customer has entered their search requirements, for example telling people the extent to which search results are affected by factors that aren’t relevant to a customer’s requirements such as the amount of commission a hotel pays the site. They will no longer be able to give a false impression of the availability or popularity of a hotel or rush customers into making a booking decision based on incomplete information. For example, when highlighting that other customers are looking at the same hotel as somebody else, they will make it clear they may be searching for different dates. Some sites strategically place sold-out hotels within search results to put pressure on people to book more quickly. Sites have now committed not to do this.

Hotels will now be clearer about discounts and only promote deals that are actually available at that time. Examples of misleading discount claims have included comparisons with a higher price that was not relevant to the customer’s search criteria. For instance, some sites compare a higher weekend room rate with a weekday rate or compare the price of a luxury suite with a standard room.

As for hidden charges, hotels will now display all compulsory charges such as taxes, booking or resort fees in the headline price. Sites can still break that price down, but the total amount the customer has to pay will from now on be shown upfront.

The UK Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has now taken this enforcement action to bring to an end these misleading sales tactics, which thus far have been wholly unacceptable.

Six websites, some of the largest hotel booking sites, have already given firm pledges that they will not engage in these practices. All changes must be made by Sept. 1 at the latest.

This has been a decade-long battle that appears to have been won. The CMA can now either secure commitments from those involved to change their business practices or take them to court.

It is unclear whether the changes will be instituted worldwide but they should be. Around 70 percent of people who look for hotel deals use them thanks to website claims that guarantee the best possible price for the hotel room of choice. Consequently, travelers must feel sure they’re getting the deal they expected.


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