Many of us have felt the pressure when seeing the ***LAST ROOM AVAILABLE*** warning on travel booking sites like Booking.com or Expedia. For some sites, these warnings haven't always been entirely representative, but turning up to an empty hotel when the long-awaited trip comes should now be a thing of the past, as travel booking websites adopt fairer and more transparent practices.
On 20 December 2019, the European Commission announced that the travel booking website Booking.com had committed to making changes by 16 June 2020 in the way it presents offers, discounts and prices, to enable consumers to make better informed comparisons, in line with the requirements of EU consumer law.
Although these recent commitments were made by Booking.com only, they follow an enforcement decision by the UK's CMA in February 2019 against six travel booking websites in response to concerns over pressure selling, misleading discount claims, commission-led ordering of search results, and hidden charges. The decision led to the CMA securing commitments from a further 25 online hotel and other accommodation booking platforms to follow the CMA's and legal consumer protection principles.
The CMA and European Commission inevitably expect these commitments to set a general industry standard to be followed by all travel booking websites (including not only search platforms, but also primary hotel websites).
Online travel services platforms will remain under scrutiny from national regulators (coordinated in the EU by the European Commission) now they have clearer guidance on acceptable practices. This means all travel booking platforms should review and, if necessary, implement the following practices, in line with the Booking.com commitments:
Despite such concrete guidance on what is no longer acceptable, it remains to be seen exactly where the line will be drawn in future cases between unfair, misleading or aggressive practices and legitimate marketing tactics. We do, however, expect to see consumer protection and competition regulators taking a robust approach to any practice that comes close to misleading consumers.
Booking.com has until 16 June 2020 to implement its commitments, a deadline which roughly coincides with the entry into force in the EU and UK on 12 July 2020 of the Platform for Business Regulation, which will impose fairer practices on "online intermediation services" used by businesses to sell their goods and services. For travel websites, it will require, in particular:
These requirements aim to protect small travel business owners from any unfair practices by the online intermediaries increasingly used by consumers to book their holidays. Small hotel owners had been complaining about the distorted picture of availability and prices shown by some websites, claiming this led to consumers opting for large professional accommodation providers. They also raised concerns about the imposition of flexible cancellation rules in some cases.
Very much in line with the commitments given on the consumer side, the new Regulation should contribute to greater transparency around booking websites' roles as intermediaries, helping to level the playing field for smaller actors.
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