Hotel Booking Is a Post-truth Nightmare

Buying stuff online is stressful. Reserving a room is excruciating.

Animated gif of a mouse pointer and a screen on hotel offers
Illustration by The Atlantic. Source: Smith Collection / Getty.

Imagine you’re about to embark on a business trip to New York City. You want to book a hotel near the company office in Midtown. You search for hotels within your desired radius and price range, and hundreds of options appear. This should be a piece of cake.

Except it isn’t. When you click through, half of the deals advertised on the booking site turn out not to be available. You try another booking site, which appears to offer a different set of deals, many of which again turn out not to be available. You end up checking site after site, cross-referencing in an effort to establish which deals are actually the best. (Have hotels always been this expensive?, you wonder. No, they haven’t.) You finally have it figured out, so you go to make your reservation, and—oops, in the time you’ve spent cross-referencing, that deal has expired. You try another. Expired too. A third goes through … but the price turns out to be 25 percent higher than it said before—and way outside your price range. Oh, you thought that when the site said the room cost $309, it meant you’d pay $309? How silly of you!

Buying stuff online is often stressful, but booking a hotel these days is a uniquely excruciating experience. It will leave you questioning what is true and what is false. It will beat you down until, at a certain point, you won’t even care. You’ll just want to be done already.

It has not always been this way. Once upon a time, booking a hotel was not a soul-crushing slog. Back in the pre-internet days, things were simpler. Maybe you hired a travel agent to take care of things for you. Maybe you handled the booking yourself. Either way, prices were pretty much static, with the exception of differing rates for weekends and weekdays. This system had its drawbacks, but at least it was straightforward. If you want to blame someone for what happened next, blame the airlines, Recep Karaburun, a professor at NYU who has worked in and studied the hotel industry for 30 years, told me. It was the airlines, not the hotels, that pioneered “dynamic pricing” in the 1980s, adjusting rates in response to short-term shifts in supply and demand. (Think of ride-share surge pricing.) By the late ’90s, hotels, led by the Las Vegas mega-resorts, had caught on.

For travelers, these changes manifest as chaos and confusion. The price of a room you’re booking can spike from one minute to the next. The ground is always shifting beneath your feet. Adding to the chaos, says Christopher K. Anderson, a professor at the Cornell School of Hotel Administration, is the fact that on average, people now book their accommodations much closer to their travel dates than they once did. With so much booking activity taking place within a shorter time window, prices end up fluctuating even as customers peruse them. Some sites also use cookies to adjust prices separately for each potential customer, adding yet another layer of complexity. “If I search the same destination five times, the prices are going up,” Karaburun told me. “They’re actually tracking your behavior—This guy is very determined. He’s going to book. I have to squeeze him as much as possible.” To subvert this tactic, Karaburun now books all his reservations in incognito mode.

The constant flux poses a problem for deal aggregators. These sites (many of which are owned by either Expedia Group or Booking Holdings) are supposed to compile rates from many hotels and booking sites (many of which are also owned by either Expedia or Booking) in one place—a one-stop shop. But they can scrape pricing information only so often, and they struggle to keep pace. (They’re also hopelessly cluttered with sponsored content.) As a result, the deal aggregators can be “a waste of time,” Kevin Brasler, the executive editor of the nonprofit consumer organization Consumers’ Checkbook, told me. For a forthcoming report, he and his colleagues conducted nearly 2,000 hotel-room searches and found that “a lot of the time, the rate we clicked on wasn’t available once we clicked through,” he said. “Or it was showing us a per-night rate that just wasn’t meaningful.”

This latter point is worth a closer look. The stated offer you eventually click on may not include applicable hotel taxes, amenity fees, or, in certain places, resort fees. You could end up paying fees you’ve never heard of and don’t understand. And these taxes and fees may be concealed from you right up until the moment you’re asked to enter your credit-card digits. This tactic, called drip pricing, renders price-sorting tools much less useful. You search a booking site for hotels under $200 a night, select a $175 room, and find out that it actually costs $240. What is the point of price-sorting if the prices being sorted are not the actual prices? And if a booking site unilaterally chose to be up-front about these fees—deciding that, from here on out, it would just give customers the all-in price—then that site would appear to have the worst prices around. No one would book there. (Certain sites partially circumvent this by showing the all-in price in small print beneath the nightly price, thus providing more transparency without appearing pricier in search results. Expedia does this; does not.) The upshot of all this, Brasler told me, is that “the entire hotel industry is just rife with bait and switch.”

Apparently, the Biden administration has noticed. The president’s most recent State of the Union address included both a general tirade against junk fees—those extra charges tacked on at the end of a purchase, which the administration says cost Americans tens of billions of dollars each year—and a specific censure for the hotel industry. In March, the Junk Fee Prevention Act, mentioned in the speech, was introduced in the Senate. And just a few weeks ago, the Pennsylvania attorney general ordered Marriott International to pay $225,000 for failing to disclose resort fees to customers.

Still, Karaburun isn’t terribly optimistic that things will change anytime soon. Even if the government did ban junk fees, that wouldn’t make booking sites and aggregators clear and functional. Nor would it put an end to the various other issues that can arise when you book a hotel, such as false-scarcity traps—“only 1 room left!”—in which sites trick customers into thinking they have to book now or risk losing their room. (Expedia Group told me that hotels control information about room availability, and that customers find this information helpful. Booking Holdings did not return a request for comment.) It also wouldn’t end so-called flexible-cancellation deals, which may specify that customers get a refund only if they cancel by a deadline that, in some cases, has already passed, Brasler told me. Even if customers do cancel in time, their refund could be as little as 5 to 10 percent of what they paid. (Expedia Group said that cancel-by dates are clearly displayed on hotel pages, and that customers can filter to ensure that their reservations are fully refundable.)

The dynamic-pricing dice may be weighted against you, Brasler said, but if you’re willing to spend enough time, they’ll eventually roll in your favor. Hotels try to offer rates on their own site that are better than, or at least equivalent to, those available on booking sites. But their ability to monitor booking-site rates is imperfect, Karaburun told me, so they end up playing whack-a-mole. Grab the mole before the hotel whacks it, and you’ll save some money. If you’ve got the stamina and fortitude for that, all credit to you. The last time I tried to book a hotel, I found myself spiraling into frustration and disillusionment, and just gave up.

What you want when you’re booking a hotel is, in principle, very simple. You want basic information. You want to not be jerked around and deceived. You want to see in one place the actual prices of all the relevant hotels. “There shouldn’t have to be a 10-page article to inform people how to get a good deal and avoid trouble,” Brasler said. “And yet, here we are.”

The best analogy for online hotel booking, I think, is a hall of mirrors: You can’t tell what’s real, and you can’t escape. In that sense, hotel booking, perhaps more than any other everyday commercial experience, fits perfectly into the landscape of 2023 America. This is online shopping for the “post-truth” era.