How Popular Travel Sites Are Scamming You Into Booking Too Soon

urgency marketing_beige hotel roomJust the phrase “Before it’s too late!” can have you reaching for your wallet. Even if you know that’s just a sales tactic, you also don’t want to risk missing out.

Online travel agencies (OTAs) know this well, and they’ve been using it against you for years. They want you to buy now and buy from them, and they’ll do whatever it takes to convince you. If you’ve ever searched for hotel rooms and ended up on a site like Hotels.com, Booking.com, or Orbitz, you’ve probably seen some flashy text that made your heart beat a little faster: “Only 3 rooms left at this price!” (Only three rooms left? What?! Should I buy now? I should definitely buy now.) Only three rooms left can practically talk you into booking a room for a vacation you’re not even taking.

Travel expenses can feel like land mines, and everything’s so expensive that you’re extra desperate for a good deal. But remember that you’re spending money on things you don’t spend money on all that often. You’re less familiar with what a good deal is and how to go about getting one. OTAs know this, and unfortunately, they’re using it against you. Here are four traps to watch out for when using OTAs to book hotels.

1. Limited-Time Deals

Any time you’re face-to-face with a countdown before you buy something, you’re experiencing a real example of what’s called “urgency marketing.” It pushes you to make a decision soon because you think that if you don’t, you won’t have another chance.

OTAs often use this tactic in the form of limited-time deals. They might show you a certain price or discount with a timer in the corner saying that’s when this deal will expire. Expedia uses this strategy most often with their “Daily Deals,” meaning that these deals will always expire in 24 hours or less. Travelocity and Hotwire—who, by the way, happen to be owned by Expedia—also like to tempt you with today-only sales and deals:

screenshot of travelocity and hotwire sales

When seeing messages like this, you feel like you don’t have much time to think about it or come back later. You must act now or be left behind. The result for OTAs is faster bookings, more bookings, and more commission for the travel site giants. The other result is customers feeling like they didn’t have time to consider all their options before pulling the trigger on a booking.

2. Limited Availability

Not enough time is one thing; not enough availability can be even worse. When faced with a deal countdown timer you might (rightly) think, “Chances are this room will still be available after the countdown even if I miss the deal.” But, OTAs often employ a limited availability tactic, telling you there are only a few rooms left. This is urgency created through scarcity, and it works because people naturally see something as more valuable when there is less of it. So many OTAs do this that we couldn’t include them all in one image:

screenshot booking.com, princeline, and expedia

If you thought the OTAs were sweetly letting you know that there were only a few rooms left, just to let you know what’s up, we’re sorry to tell you that that’s not the case. Hotel chains give OTAs a certain number of rooms that they can sell for a certain night. So, while an OTA may only have three rooms left in their inventory for that hotel on a given night, the hotel could actually have 25 empty rooms left for those who book with them directly.

Another way OTAs imply limited availability is to tell you how many people have viewed or booked that hotel in the past few days or hours. Take Orbitz for example:

screenshot orbitz.com

What’s deceptive about a claim like this is that it doesn’t tell you what dates the other people are looking at. More than likely, they are just viewing that hotel property for travel dates that are different from your own. But you don’t know that, so you’re left feeling like you’re locked in a battle with those other people. You feel pulled to book a room now so they don’t take it away from you.

3. Loss Aversion

In the same vein, OTAs use a strategy called loss aversion, which the younger generation has rebranded as FOMO (or, the “fear of missing out”). Biologically, humans are wired this way. Studies have shown that the pain of loss is often much worse than the pleasure associated with gain. Because of this, things are often sold to us framed around what we might lose rather than what we might gain.

OTAs take advantage of this psychology by showing you what you’re about to miss out on or even what you’ve already missed out on. The “Only 1 room left!” examples from above achieve this as well as those that say “You missed it!” or “Fully booked!” This adds an extra level of seriousness to your decision. If you don’t book right now, there could be consequences.

screenshot hotels.com and booking.com

We didn’t like how Hotels.com and Booking.com were tugging at our heartstrings here, so we put these claims to the test. We went to Marriott.com to check their own availability for the same dates at the San Francisco Union Square property and, indeed, we saw that they actually do still have rooms available—at least 15 left, in fact, for those who book the hotel on Marriott.com. Thanks for nothing, Hotels.com!

4. Urgency Marketing

All of these OTA tactics, and more, can be classified as urgency (or anxiety) marketing: leading consumers to believe that a certain price, room, or deal is about to disappear when that’s not actually the case. This is very effective for commercial websites. It’s a type of “dark pattern,” a phrase used to describe “features of interface design crafted to trick users into doing things they might not want to do, but which benefit the business in question.”

Some tests have shown that sales can increase by 992% when customers are presented with a sense of urgency. (Yep, you read that right—992% was not a typo!) Booking.com openly admits to constantly testing their site for new tactics that increase their conversion rates and grow their wallet. But don’t let their gain be your pain by booking too early when, really, there’s plenty of time to consider your options.

Even if you don’t remember each of these specific tactics in detail, the most important thing is that now you’re aware of what the OTAs are doing so you can start to identify it on your own. If you pay attention, you’ll start to notice the subtle ways some businesses try to influence you online, and you’ll become impervious.

The good news is that you don’t have to put up with this nonsense every time you want to book a hotel room. You can just skip the stress altogether by using Roomkey to search for hotels. All you’ll see when you visit roomkey.com is information straight from our hotel partners that’s easy to navigate and presented in a way that makes sense. We don’t use spammy sales tactics or gimmicks—and we never will. In fact, our motto promises just that: “No tricks. Just travel.”

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