In recent years, booking hotels online is gaining in popularity. Many websites flaunted their "Best Price Guarantees" by claiming that if their prices were not the lowest, the price difference with the competing rates will be refunded. Despite the enticing guarantees, consumers missing the contract details may find themselves ineligible to enjoy the guarantee, or disapproved by not being able to pursue the compensation claims. The Consumer Council surveyed 8 websites that provide hotel accommodation booking service settled in Hong Kong Dollar (HKD). Their search results, booking procedures, price guarantee terms, and restrictions on compensation claims have been studied to remind consumers that though booking hotels online is convenient, it involves much details that cannot be overlooked.
5 of the 8 hotel booking websites surveyed provide the lowest price guarantees, i.e. after making reservations, if patrons manage to find lower priced options from other websites, they can claim for a refund on the rate difference or compensation. However, in order to claim for the lowest price guarantee, the claim must comply with stringent restrictions such as eligibility and valid period, which make any successful claim a daunting task to consumers. For example, the lowest price guarantee is only available for booking of exact matches in all stipulated terms, including the same hotel, room type, bed type, accommodation dates, payment arrangements, etc. If there are any discrepancies, or the website offering lower price lacks information in any aspect, the claim will be rejected.
In terms of eligible period, 2 websites require submission of claims within 24 hours upon booking confirmation. Some websites accept claim submissions prior to checking in at the hotel. However, none of the websites surveyed provide pledge on submission processing time. If there is a delay in the review of claim and the better rate from a competitor is no longer available while the submission is processed, the claim can also be denied.
Compensation also varies among websites. 3 websites surveyed will refund the difference to eligible applicants, while another 2 websites will refund more than the price difference, though with a top limit. For the 2 websites that offer higher amount of compensation, more restrictions have been set including payment must be made in HKD, the lower priced offers must come from websites in Hong Kong or websites with Hong Kong domains (e.g. ".com.hk"). Bookings under other currencies or deals offered by websites elsewhere will not be considered. A website even requires that the lower priced deal must be offered by a website registered in Hong Kong and holding a travel agent licence. Consumers are advised to compare and read the compensation conditions with caution.
In short, "the lowest price guarantee" comes with many restrictions, and to qualify for making a compensation claim is challenging. When consider their bookings, consumers can consider choosing the more practical option of selecting free of charge cancellation if they may change the itinerary or choose another hotel, bearing in mind that the price of this option is higher and consumers should take note of the free cancellation period. 3 websites stated that the cancellation is free to a certain date but no cut-off time is specified. Another 3 websites did not indicate clearly the applicable time zone for cancellation period that may confuse the consumers. Moreover, 1 website takes up to 3 to 6 months to process the refund and consumers have to be patient to deal with the claim.
In addition, consumers should be alerted that the listed prices are often not the final prices, and there may be other hidden charges. All 8 surveyed websites accept payments made in HKD. Nevertheless, since the terms and conditions of 5 websites stated that the companies are located outside the territory, extra fees may be incurred for cross-border transactions when settling the payment in HKD. However, none of these sites specify the detailed arrangements in accepting the foreign currency, and the exchange rates involved.
If consumers encounter any problems with their accommodations, they normally contact the travel agent or the hotel booking websites for assistance. Consumers also have to note that that none of the websites indicated bearing of the cost of long distance calls. In addition, among the 8 surveyed, only 5 have round-the-clock service hotlines. 1 website stated clearly in the conditions that they will not be liable for any costs incurred subsequent to a change in hotel. 3 websites did not mention how they would manage unfulfilled hotel bookings.
The survey also showed that among the 8 hotel booking websites, 6 have listed disclaimers stating they will not be responsible for any erroneous information concerning hotels and their services presented. 3 websites even set out in their terms and conditions that, these information was provided by hotels or their agents, and the websites do not guarantee its "completeness and accuracy". 2 websites claimed that information was provided and updated by hotels directly.
Given many companies operating hotel booking websites are located overseas, consumers may encounter a lot of difficulties in managing disputes overseas and compensation claim. Among the 8 websites surveyed, 5 are licensed travel agents and members of the Travel Industry Council of Hong Kong, thus consumers who book hotels via a licensed travel agent in Hong Kong are more protected by related regulation. If needed, they can approach the travel agents and/or the Travel Industry Council for assistance.
When booking a hotel room online, consumers can refer to the following suggestions:
- During the booking process, one should retain a screenshot of each page and important clauses as evidence of proof;
- Keep the confirmation emails from hotel booking websites which should list clearly the booking confirmation number, cancellation policy, the location of the hotel and contact methods;
- If detailed service terms and conditions are provided at prominent positions on the websites and consumers choose these websites to make their reservations, it means that they accept and agree to the relevant terms and condition. It is the consumers' responsibility to understand the terms thoroughly prior to reservation and to avoid using websites with over-protective terms or those with clauses unfavourable to consumers.
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