Can Booking.com change the terms of a promotion after the fact?

Kelly Thomas receives a hard-to-believe offer from Booking.com. During her upcoming hotel stay in Dubai, she can enjoy unlimited free attractions for herself and anyone else traveling with her. But is this deal too good to be true?

Question: I recently booked a dream vacation to Dubai using Booking.com. When I received my confirmation I was also given a special QR code that was apparently only given to certain customers who booked a specific location for a certain amount of time. The announcement that came with the QR code said I would have access to all 37 listed attractions for free, and that everyone in my group would also be free. Yes, all of them completely free. It really stated exactly that.

Well, I guess more people caught on because a month after that, Booking updated the information about the code on their site. Now the code is only valid up to 100 euros. Some people were already on their trip having success with the code and it just stopped working on that day. How do I know? There are threads upon threads about this situation on TripAdvisor. There was no notice to us about this change whatsoever. Booking.com just changed it.

In my case, I can’t afford to go on this trip without this code. I had spent seven months saving for this trip and I planned to use this code to see all the attractions. With all that being said, is there anything you can do to help me? Kelly Thomas, San Diego

Answer: Wow! When I read through your request for help I thought surely you must have misunderstood the terms of this offer.

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But the more I read through all of your supporting documents, the more I realized that there was no misunderstanding.

That original promotion stated that you and up to three friends could enjoy all of the listed activities during your one-week stay in Dubai — completely free.

When you received the offer, you were not entirely convinced yourself and emailed Booking.com for clarification. Here is its response:

The attractions pass will work once for each attraction and covers up to twice the amount of guests in the reservation, for instance there are 2 guests in your reservation, so you can bring 4 people to the water park or to the spa treatment, including yourself…

I wondered what kind of marketing department had created such a generous promotion and how it could possibly make financial sense to the company. I thought that perhaps the included activities were minor, inexpensive activities.

But when I reviewed the list of 37 included possibilities, I was surprised to see that almost any activity that a person might want to do in Dubai was included: waterparks, spa services, city tours, Legoland and day tours to neighboring cities.

These activities range in price from 50 to 120 euros ($59 to $141) per person. This deal was a real money-saver for the traveler who received it — and all of their friends.

So, what was the catch?

Evidently there wasn’t one, and the travelers that were offered this deal took full advantage of the code in the cities where it was offered, among them Rome, Barcelona, and Dubai.

Soon enough, the promotion was throttled by Booking.com. An update to the website showed that a new 100-euro cap was included in the terms.

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That limit would not even cover one admission to some of the “included” activities. And no one informed the travelers that the promotion had changed.

I checked out the TripAdvisor message boards that you included in your correspondence with me — and there were a multitude of angry Booking.com customers just like you, complaining and threatening lawsuits about this promotion’s sudden change of terms.

You didn’t want to go down that path, so you contacted us. I reached out to the company on your behalf and asked what had happened here.

Our contact from Priceline, which is the parent company of Booking.com, explained:

In testing different options and formats for our new beta ‘Experiences’ product, it turns out many people were abusing this offer by giving it to other people, booking for other people, etc. So in order to prevent further abuse and ensure we can continue to offer actual Booking.com customers a great in-destination experience, we modified the offering to 100 euros.

OK, that seemed like one way to handle the problem of consumer abuse of a promotion, but what about the travelers who just wanted to use the plan as it was offered? The customers, like yourself, who had factored this promotion into their vacation budget?

Our executive contact sympathized with your plight, and Booking.com will be providing you a 500-euro limit with your QR code.

You have adjusted your plans for Dubai, and this is an offer that you are thrilled to accept. So for you, this case has a happy ending.

But based on the many disgruntled travelers in the various forums that I visited, other Booking.com customers may not be satisfied with a cap on their QR code, and this may not be the last we hear of this promotion.

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Michelle Couch-Friedman

Michelle is the executive director of Elliott.org. She is a consumer advocate, writer and licensed clinical social worker who spends as much time as possible exploring the world with her family. Contact her at Michelle Friedman Read more of Michelle's articles here.

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