Online hotel booking sites do not deliver the bargain prices claimed in their glossy TV ads.
Eight in ten UK rooms were cheaper or came with incentives such as a free breakfast if a booking was made directly over the phone, according to research by Which?
Websites such as Booking.com and Expedia claim to search all available deals across a range of hotel options to provide the cheapest rooms.
Online hotel booking sites do not deliver the bargain prices claimed in their glossy TV ads, a study by Which? has found
But the consumer group said the commission taken by booking websites tends to drive up prices, rather than delivering bargains.
The organisation said the way specialist online hotel and travel booking websites operate in the UK is rigged against consumers.
In Britain, they impose so-called ‘parity clauses’, which do not allow hotels to offer cheaper prices when selling rooms to the public through their own site.
However, this does not prevent the hotels offering a lower price if a customer contacts them directly by telephone or email.
The biggest saving found by going direct was 12 per off the cost listed on Booking.com – a saving of £20 – as well as having a free upgrade.
Many independent hoteliers resent the power of the big booking websites – and the fees they demand. However, they feel they have no choice but to use them.
Which? said: ‘Online travel agents (OTAs) are often thought to be the most convenient way to get the best price on a hotel room, with many comparing the cost of hotel rooms across different websites under the promise of allowing the customer to find the best deal.
‘However, when we contacted 10 hotels to ask if they could offer a better deal than that offered by an OTA or on their own website, eight were able to offer a better price or other incentives such as free breakfasts or upgrades.
A table showing the prices of 10 hotels across the UK on Booking.com compared to the prices Which? researchers were offered when contacting them directly
A letter, seen by Which? Travel, from Booking.com to a B&B owner warned them against offering cheaper rates on their own website
HOW TO GET THE BEST ROOM RATE
Find a hotel on an online booking site.
Google the name of the property (watch out for ads from hotel booking sites hijacking the search results – scroll down to find the official site).
Email or, better still, call the hotel directly.
Quote the online booking site’s rate and ask if they can better it.
Calculate 15 per cent to 25 per cent of the rate. This is the potential saving for the hotelier and an indicator of wiggle room.
‘OTAs charge high levels of commission – typically between 15 and 25 per cent – on every booking, which hotels, especially smaller properties like family-run B&Bs, often have to pass on to customers.’
Which? added that hotel price parity clauses have been banned in France, Italy and Austria for preventing competition.
However, the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) chose not to follow suit in a recent review of the hotel booking industry.
The consumer champion said one small B&B owner told them the online travel agents are so dominant that they are ‘stealing’ customers that might have otherwise made a direct booking.
A letter, seen by Which? Travel, from Booking.com to another B&B owner warned them against offering cheaper rates on their own website.
It says: ‘While checking your property website we found cheaper rates than those displayed on Booking.com.
‘As we work with our Partners, in good and fair relationships, we also aim to give a great customer experience, which includes a strong inventory and fair prices.
‘Having consistently lower rates on your property website may detract from this customer experience as well as impact your own performance on Booking.com. Over time this could lead to lower visibility and slower business growth.
‘We would like to kindly ask that you provide Booking.com with the same rates and conditions as your own website.’
The editor of Which? Travel, Rory Boland, said: ‘Customers shouldn’t be duped into thinking they’re getting the best price from a hotel booking site when more often than not, they can get a better deal by avoiding its commission and booking directly with the hotel.
‘Hotel booking sites might be a good place to start your search, but you should always call or email the hotel for the best chance of getting the cheapest deal – even in cases where they can’t offer a better price, there’s a good chance they’ll throw in a freebie or two.’
Booking.com said: ‘Properties choose whatever prices they want to list on Booking.com, which they can do at will and free of charge. Then Booking works hard to advertise their property for them to customers all over the world.
Which? said the commission taken by booking websites tends to drive up prices, rather than delivering bargains
‘If Booking can indeed find them a customer, the property then – and only then – pays a small fee in exchange for the service.’
Expedia added: ‘For the past 20-plus years, Expedia Group has helped hundreds of thousands of hoteliers compete for consumers’ business and provided transparency to the market, helping consumers discover these hotels quickly and efficiently.
‘We provide a global marketplace for chains and independent hotels alike to compete with their peer hotels, by making them visible and bookable to consumers worldwide.
‘Our focus is on ensuring that the best rates and availability are presented to consumers in order to attract travellers to our sites to book with our partners.
‘The ability to book packages with Expedia is a great example of this, where many hotels and certain airlines give us special discounted pricing.’