“Consumers are encountering a growing number of problems with online travel services and these services are now among the most frequent consumer complaints, according to the European Consumer Centres,” says a study published last week by the European Commission.
Online sites “need to respect the European consumer rules, just like a travel agent would,” the study admonished, and the EU promises to “require the websites to solve these issues."
The European Commission and EU consumer protection authorities screened 352 price comparison and travel booking websites across the EU in October 2016 for the study, which is called “Booking your holidays online: Commission and consumer protection authorities act on misleading travel booking websites.”
It found that “prices were not reliable” on 235 websites—fully two-thirds of the total—as online travel agencies (OTAs) added price elements at a late stage of the booking process without clearly informing consumers, and offered promotional prices that often did not correspond with any available service.
EU authorities “have asked the websites concerned to bring their practices in line with EU consumer legislation, which requires them to be fully transparent about prices, and present their offers in a clear way, at an early stage of the booking process,” the study said.
Vera Jourová, Commissioner for Justice, Consumers and Gender Equality, said, "The Internet provides consumers with plenty of information to prepare, compare and book their holidays. However, if the reviews on comparison websites are biased or prices are not transparent, these websites are misleading consumers. The companies concerned need to respect the European consumer rules, just like a travel agent would. Consumer authorities will now require the websites to solve these issues. Consumers deserve the same protection online as offline."
The report found that the online sites had many errors and omissions when it came to pricing travel. In one third of the cases (32.1%), the price first shown was simply not the same as the final price when it came time to book. In 20.7% of the cases, promotional offers were not really available. In 30.1% of the cases the total price or the way it was calculated was not clear. And in one in four cases (25.9%), websites did not specify that statements about scarcity (such as "only two left") applied only to their own website and not to the full inventory.
When it came to user reviews, 21.3% of the websites “presented consumer reviews in an unclear or un-transparent way (and/or included elements that could question their truthfulness)” and when it came to comparing options, 10.5% of the websites did not provide material information that was important for the comparison.
(Editor’s Note: Over a long career in journalism, I have often been on websites for freelance writers—and have often seen offers to pay writers for 100 or 200 “positive reviews” of an online product or service.)