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'This is the cheapest price you’ve seen in Cape Town!' How to get the best deal on Booking.com - without being tricked

One of the largest travel booking sites in the world, Booking.com, is gaining traction in South Africa, with more than 18,000 local properties now listed on the platform. The site is, however, known for its tactics to create a sense of urgency with the user. There are also some other strategies that you should be aware of before you book. Booking.com is one of the world’s leading accommodation booking websites. According to its own reporting , the Dutch company reserves more than 1.5 million room nights, across 28 million listings, per day.

More than 18,000 South African properties have now been listed listed on Booking.com, which is fast becoming a popular platform locally.

To the average user, Booking.com appears to offer a compelling and impartial product. Users can compare hundreds of accommodation options, filtered by price, location, star rating, facilities, and user-generated ratings.

However, Booking.com uses several "tricks" at various points throughout their website, sometimes called " dark patterns ". Some of these tricks, such as the way the site creates a sense urgency, are fairly obvious. The impact of other strategies, such as their smiley face ranking system, are less obvious to spot.

Sense of urgency

As users on a YCombinator message board point out, Booking.com manufactures an immediate sense of urgency. They do this by announcing recent booking counts and other prompts in bold red font.

Prompts like “Someone just booked this”, “Only 3 rooms left!”, “Great value today” and “Last chance!” draw in attention at random locations throughout the website. These are often alongside icons of clock faces and ringing alarm clocks.

They further confirm the need to make up your mind urgently by changing the text on booking buttons from “See availability” to “See our last available rooms”.

In order to drive this message home even further, Booking.com by default includes properties and rooms that have sold out in the search results with messages like “You just missed it. The last room on our site sold out a few days ago.”

Many of these prompts appear on the site after a short delay, or as a notification similar to those on social networking websites. These work to draw users back in to the website, and suggest that they are trying to assist users with realtime notifications of a property rapidly selling out.

Pricing

One of the key tactics used by the website is to make the accommodation prices seem better than they actually are.

Original prices are regularly greyed and struck out. These are replaced with bold red discounted rates - sometimes at 50% of the original room cost. This discount pricing is not as clear as it originally appears, however.

Booking.com According to Booking.com's terms and conditions , “The discount is based on the third highest current price of the property for rooms with the same booking conditions in a 20-day window around your check-in date”.

In other words, the promoted discounts are significantly more common than Booking.com will have users believe, and can easily be manipulated by hotels to help them stand out.

The prompt “Jackpot! This is the cheapest price you’ve seen in Cape Town for your dates!” also appears regularly on the accommodation booking pages. This is true even if it’s the very first listing you’re viewing, which, by deduction, would also make it the most expensive listing you’ve viewed for your dates.

Accommodation reviews Booking.com places a lot of emphasis on sharing impartial, user-submitted reviews.

Although users are free to rate and review hotels as they see fit, Booking.com employs several factors to ensure all accommodation providers, even those with poor reviews, receive prominence.

They do this by cherrypicking reviews. Cherrypicked reviews, and even positive parts of otherwise negative reviews, appear prominently in the search results and on the hotel partner page.

Booking.com By default, the more detailed reviews section, several pages deep, also sorts all comments by a factor they call “Recommended”. It takes several clicks to sort all reviews as impartially as possible, according to their actual scores and dates posted.

Accommodation providers are also allowed to refute claims made in reviews without consequence. In at least two cases, Business Insider South Africa left honest reviews about accommodation that the owners falsely denied in their response.

Despite repeated contact with Booking.com support, they were unable or unwilling to allow us to respond to the false claims by the accommodation provider.

As such, reviews about noise, uncomfortable beds, heating, or other similar serious issues, can be dismissed by the accommodation provider as a user problem, rather than one relating to the property.

Accommodation ratings

Ratings are also dubious. Users do not apply an overall rating to the property. Instead, Booking.com's review system prompts users to select one of four emoticon faces, from frowning to smiling, for six categories - staff, facilities, cleanliness, value for money, location and comfort.

Booking.com This rating system might appear impartial, but it presupposes that all factors are equal - and that high ranking factors (such as location, cleanliness and staff) can outweigh another (uncomfortable beds).

One research paper has also pointed out that Booking.com inflates scores. Unlike many users might expect from ranking systems, Booking.com does not provide a ranking from 0 or 1 out of 10. The website has structured its review process to use a scale of 2.5 out of 10.

How to avoid Booking.com pitfalls

As the Centre for Humane Technology and the website Dark Patterns point out, many websites use similar tactics. The goal of many sites is to keep users engaged longer, and to make rash purchasing decisions that benefit their customers.

Booking.com provides a useful service to travellers, but its primary customer is the accommodation providers, not the user. As such, it’s important to remember that the balance of favour will always be towards hotels.

Users should ignore the various prompts urging them to book quickly, and understand that the promoted discounts are often inflated or misleading and designed to close the sale.

When making selections of hotels, the rating and review system is a useful way to weed out the good from the bad. But reviews on landing and listing pages should be ignored. Only those sorted by score from low to high, and then checked against review dates, are worth considering.

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