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 a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, consumer advocate, writer and photographer who spends as much time as possible exploring the world with her family. She is Advocacy & Editorial Director at Elliott.org.

  • John Baker

    1. The terms of an agreement shouldn’t change after it starts unless both sides agree… Period. Full Stop.
    2. “In my case, I can’t afford to go on this trip without this code.” Say what? You got the code after you booked the trip not before. So at the time you booked it, you weren’t expecting to receive this code. Explain to me how you can no longer afford to take a trip because you can’t use a freebie you weren’t expecting to have when you planned the trip? Now, can you afford the same experience? Probably not. You can still afford the trip.

  • MarkKelling

    “I can’t afford to go on this trip without this code”

    Bull. You were going on the trip anyway, so you must be able to afford it. Maybe you won’t be able to afford all of the 37 extra activities that the offer previously included. Not the same as not being able to afford the trip.

    Anyway, glad an agreeable solution was reached. Looks like Booking.com should have done the math before offering such a deal.

  • Tigger57

    My thoughts exactly! The code was a surprise

  • Extramail

    So, does every single person who booked and are now disgruntled with the retraction of benefits contact Elliott.com and request the same resolution? I don’t understand why booking.com gets to treat the traveler who complained any differently than the hundreds of others who were offered the same promotion. Booking.com needs to be held accountable for offering a promotion that can so easily be taken advantage of. Isn’t that why contracts are so filled with escapable language for the offering company?

  • AJPeabody

    I get the mental image of the Peanuts cartoon where Lucy pulls the football away just as Charlie Brown is about to kick it. Shame on Lucy and shame on Booking.com!

  • Lori Heathorn

    @johnbaker, I caught that little nugget of information, too. I really dislike it when people exaggerate the repercussions to bolster a claim.

  • Lindabator

    first – she booked a trip THEN learned about the freebies, so she planned on taking the trip anyway. second – she gets the list, waits a month and does nothing. Frankly, special offers can get pulled at any time, so why wait???

  • Lindabator

    but this is the problem — their guests gave the code to others, so abused — this is why most offers get yanked —- play fair, folks, and no issues with such goodies

  • Lindabator

    shame on those who gave the code out publicly so ANYONE could use at Booking.com’s expense – this is why people cannot HAVE nice freebies

  • ArizonaRoadWarrior

    The OP is no different than the people that gave out the codes to others. She lied about the situation to get the offer after the offer was changed.

    The fact is that she received the offer AFTER she made her confirmation.

    “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.”

    Her statement of “In my case, I can’t afford to go on this trip without this code.” is NOT the truth…she said it to game the system.

  • Dutchess

    Except, if other people are late paying their mortgage then why would the bank call in my mortgage? If other people run red lights, why should I get a ticket? If they were able to 500 euros on OP’s QR code it means they could easily throttle the codes that have been shared without impacting the ones who used it honestly. Furthermore, if your marketing team was stupid enough to come up with an easily abused promotion they should eat the cost plain and simple and go after those who abused it. I would be furious even with the 500 euro cap. I wouldn’t have accepted anything other than the original promotion. Ridiculous.

  • Harvey-6-3.5

    I wonder if there would have been a technological solution to prevent the sharing (like requiring the QR code and a matching passport) so the promotion would have remained limited to those for whom it was intended.

  • KanExplore

    I agree, and I think we’ll see legal action about this. Seems to me they can deactivate in cases of actual abuse, or can cut short the signup period, but should eat the costs of a promotion in progress if it was simply poorly thought out and overly generous. Yes, maybe the OP always could afford the trip (though not all the freebies offered), but what about others who made travel plans based on the promotion? You can’t just say, “Book with us and you’ll get A to Z,” then when someone books with you they just get A.

  • KanExplore

    True enough, and the people at booking.com are are part of a monster corporation which ought to have someone on staff who thinks about those things before they put in place a promotion whose terms they are unwilling to honor. This makes them come across like some fly by night vacation voucher scammer. I sometimes take the side of the companies on this forum, but not here. If there was something in their published terms and conditions that would allow them to do this, I’m pretty sure the Elliott team would have spotted it. They look at those very carefully, down to the last tiny footnote. Though understandable in a sense, I think the booking.com action is not defensible.

  • Daddydo

    Really? A yes or no question? The terms need to apply from the moment that the credit card payment was applied. I am sorry that there are tons of people out there that might abuse the offer, but that is Booking.com’s problem, not Kelly’s. I am glad that she is satisfied with the outcome, but she deserves what she paid for.

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