Booking.com has been accused of continuing to mislead consumers with pressure-selling tactics, despite a crackdown by regulators.
A Which? Travel investigation carried out spot checks on the six online travel agents ordered to make changes following enforcement action by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) over concerns of pressure selling, misleading discount claims, the impact of commissions on search results and hidden charges.
The regulator concluded that practices such as giving a false impression of a room's popularity or not displaying the full cost upfront could potentially break consumer protection law and gave the websites – Expedia, Booking.com, Agoda, Hotels.com, Ebookers and Trivago – until 1 September to change.
However, Which? Travel says five out of 10 of Booking.com's ‘only one room left on our site' claims failed to give an accurate picture of availability.
In one example, search results for the Park Plaza Westminster Bridge in London warned that just one ‘secret deal' room was available – a superior double room (with disability access) priced at £232.
However, after clicking through to the booking page, Which? scrolled down to find another 10 superior doubles (with internal view) available for a cheaper rate of £226. In total, 34 empty rooms were still available at the same hotel on the same night.
In another example, the Banjo B&B in Liverpool showed ‘one room left' on a budget double room. When Which? clicked through there were four identical ‘budget double rooms' for the same price of £49.
It says the five other sites which were named and shamed by the CMA appeared to have cleaned up their acts. Agoda, for example, now tells customers: ‘We only have one left at this price.' Which? said that, while Booking.com has made some changes to its site, it has not gone far enough.
Last week, 25 firms including TripAdvisor, Airbnb and Google signed up to the CMA's consumer protection law principles for online booking sites, although six of the largest hotel groups including Accor, InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG), Hilton, Marriott International, Radisson Hotel Group and Wyndham Hotels and Resorts requested more time for ‘technical reasons'.
Which? Travel's Naomi Leach said: "We found clear evidence that Booking.com has not yet sufficiently cleaned up its act and is flouting the rules on pressure-selling, which could lead to millions of consumers being rushed into making a booking.
"It must now provide cast-iron guarantees that it won't continue to mislead holidaymakers with these unscrupulous practices, otherwise the regulator will have to step in with strong action to bring it into line."
A statement from Booking.com said: "At Booking.com we work continuously to bring transparency, choice and value to travellers, constantly testing and improving the way in which we present our services online. We have worked hard to implement the commitments agreed with the CMA and maintain continuing collaboration and dialogue to inform ongoing enhancement of the consumer experience. This includes implementing new ways to surface information to consumers about the availability and popularity of specific properties, with this messaging currently being optimised as part of that iterative process.
"As a company which puts customers at the heart of everything we do, we never stop looking at how we can optimise the consumer experience on our website and mobile apps, as well as working closely with authorities like the CMA on industry wide improvements."