Budapest, Hungary – The Hungarian competition and antitrust watchdog GVH handed Booking.com a record-fine of 2.5 billion forints (around €7 million) for unfair business practices, Reuters reported.
The online booking operator has been accused of exerting psychological pressure on consumers and misleading advertisements, including the free cancellation option which, according to the GVH, is only available in a limited number of cases.
“In its television and internet advertising, the company prominently highlighted its ‘free cancellation’ policy […] whereas free cancellation was only available to customers for a limited time period and […] also came at a higher price”, Hungary’s GVH said in a statement, further accusing Booking.com of “interfering with customers’ decision-making process” by displaying how many other customers were looking at similar offers and how many rooms were left at a given price.
The Amsterdam-based Booking.com, which had faced a probe in Hungary since 2018 after consumers’ complaints regarding the “aggressive marketing strategy” of the online booking operator, dismissed the claims of the competition watchdog.
“Customer data and feedback shows that the information on our platform is extremely helpful for travelers”, a company representative said.
“Everything on our website, including how we display prices and payment policies, as well as the availability and popularity of specific properties, among other features relevant to the customer booking experience, is intended to help customers”.
According to AFP, the fine is the largest-ever penalty imposed in Hungary for the violation of consumer protection rights.
Booking.com and other travel booking sites have long been accused, in a number of countries, of misleading customers and of leading a highly aggressive sales strategy to pressure travelers into booking hotel rooms or other travel services on their platforms.
According to industry watchdogs, hotel booking websites commonly engage in fraudulent practices such as misleading discount claims, pressure-selling mechanisms – including false accounts of the popularity of given rooms and offers – and hidden charges applicable to the reservations.
In the U.K., an investigation last year found that despite new rules introduced by domestic regulators, there was “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”.