Can I Sue an Online Travel Booking Site?
You can, but lawsuits against an online travel booking site are hard to win. When you use an online travel agency, you agree to the site's terms and conditions. You need to read these carefully. You will see that the terms contain sweeping disclaimers, limitations on liability, and may contain limits on the time in which you can pursue legal relief.
And if you do pursue legal relief, you are generally limited to pursuing arbitration or bringing your case to small claims court. Should you decide to do that, you should consider speaking with an experienced contracts attorney.
Online Travel Booking Is Easy and Convenient
Online travel booking changed the way that people travel. About 83% of U.S. adults prefer to book their travel online. Although travel plummeted during the coronavirus pandemic, it's projected to be nearly back to its pre-pandemic levels by the end of 2022. By 2023, online bookings in the travel industry are estimated to exceed 700 million people.
Although there are a lot of online travel agencies (OTAs), travel fare aggregators, and travel metasearch engines (we call these collectively “online booking sites" or simply “sites"), there are three big players in the industry that we will focus on here.
Booking Holdings Inc., the world's leading provider of online travel services, is an American company based in Norwalk, Connecticut. In 2021, it reported $11 billion in revenues, generated largely from operating the following sites:
Expedia Group, Inc. is an American online travel company based in Seattle. In 2021, Expedia reported $8.6 billion in revenues, generated largely from the following well-known sites:
Trip.com Group is a Chinese online travel company that provides services in many countries. Founded in 1999, it is one of the largest travel services providers in the world. Trip.com Group operates Trip.com, which is based in Singapore.
Online Booking Isn't Always Smooth
It's a cold Minnesota winter and you decide to head to San Diego for Comic-Con. You book your travel through Expedia. You get a great deal on airline tickets with Delta, a premium hotel on the beach, and a rental car. You plug in your credit card information and get confirmation that the transaction went through.
You navigate the airport security lines without a hitch. You manage to sleep on the flight from Minneapolis. When you land in San Diego, the place is packed with cosplayers. It takes forever to get your luggage. You line up behind Darth Vader in front of the rental car kiosk. You finally make it to the desk and they can't find your reservation, even with the confirmation number you give them. They don't have any other cars available. None of the other car rentals at the airport do either.
Frustrated, you decide to take a cab to the hotel. When you get there, they can't find your reservation. And with the convention in town, they don't have any other rooms available. The closest hotel room you can find (which costs twice as much as the one you reserved) is part of a hotel chain in San Clemente (better there than Los Angeles, you figure). That's more than an hour away. You spend the convention having to shuttle back and forth, and, due to ridiculous traffic snarls, you wind up missing the Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power Panel you were dying to see. So much for your travel plans.
Your trip ends up costing you a lot more than it was supposed to. And you are mad. So you decide to look into what your options are.
The OTA's Terms and Conditions
When you created an account on the site, you entered into a contract with the OTA. That contract is governed by the terms and conditions of the site, which you typically can find through a link on the bottom of the page. Although the terms for each OTA vary (make sure you read them carefully), Booking.com, Expedia, and Trip.com have similar terms and conditions.
As you will see, they are pretty one-sided and strictly limit your right to any recourse. We will use Expedia's terms as an example.
The first major hurdle you face is the site's disclaimers. A disclaimer is a limitation or denial of rights under a warranty. A warranty is a guaranty in a contract that the services provided will meet certain standards of quality and reliability. Many contracts include warranties. Both warranties and disclaimers are generally enforced by courts.
In your case, the terms of the OTA specifically disclaim any warranties of any kind. The site makes no promises about the quality or reliability of their services. This means that if you tried to sue, you would be hard-pressed to persuade a judge that you can recover anything.
The second hurdle you face is the OTA's limitations on damages. The term “damages" refers to money that you can recover in a lawsuit, generally to compensate you for the losses you sustained. That amount typically includes incidental damages (typically out-of-pocket costs) and consequential damages (losses that naturally result from a breach of contract).
The OTA's terms and conditions limit your recoverable damages in two ways. First, they expressly disclaim recovery for incidental damages and consequential damages of any kind. So that means you would not be able to recover out-of-pocket costs or foreseeable losses.
Second, some OTA's terms limit the damages you can recover to a specific figure. For example, Expedia's terms and conditions limit your recovery to the greater of the Expedia service fees you paid or $100. You may be able to persuade a judge that these damage limitations are not enforceable (and in some states, they aren't), but the burden would be on you.
A third hurdle you may face, depending on the OTA, are time limits. Priceline, for example, says that you have only two years in which to bring a claim. That may not be a problem for you, but most states give you substantially more time in which to bring a claim based on the terms of a contract.
What if You Do Want Legal Relief?
Let's say that notwithstanding these hurdles, you still want to sue Expedia. The terms and conditions restrict your rights in this regard, too. You're really limited to two options.
One is to pursue arbitration. Arbitration is a legal process in which the parties hire an impartial third party (the arbitrator), typically a lawyer or a former judge, to decide their dispute. Each side typically exchanges relevant documents, then submits to the arbitrator in writing their arguments as to why they should win the dispute. Then, the arbitrator hears testimony from witnesses and reviews any evidence that the parties submit in support of their respective claims. Arbitration can be, but isn't always, a more streamlined, less expensive way to resolve a legal dispute.
However, when you agree to arbitrate your claims against an OTC, you give up several important legal rights:
- The right to having a jury of your peers decide the facts in your case and determine the amount of the damages you are entitled to recover
- The right to appeal the arbitrator's decision
- The right to group your claims with those of other similarly situated people (this is called a class-action or a class-arbitration waiver)
Some OTAs may allow you to opt-out of arbitration if you follow certain specified procedures, so make sure you read the terms and conditions carefully.
Small Claims Court
Option two is to file a case in the small claims court where you live. Small claims courts are courts that, as their name suggests, handle disputes that fall below a particular amount set by state law. The amount varies from state to state, but it ranges from $2,500 to $25,000. If your damages are less than the statutory limit, small claims court may be an option for you.
Filing a claim in small claims court is easy. You fill out the paperwork (typically a summons, a complaint, and a civil cover sheet), pay the filing fee, serve it on the OTA (the terms and conditions tell you where you need to send the paperwork), and get a hearing date. Then, on the day of the hearing, you show up, wait until your case is called, then you present your case to the judge. Make sure you bring all of your documents and any witnesses you want to testify with you. When you are done, the judge either issues a ruling right then or takes the matter under advisement, in which case you'll be notified later what the court's ruling is. Easy.
You don't necessarily have to have a lawyer in small claims court, and in some states, you are not allowed to have a lawyer represent you while in court. That may reduce your legal fees, but there are downsides:
- The process can take longer
- You may need to spend a lot of your own time gathering your evidence and preparing your case
- You may make mistakes
- You may not be able to recover as much as you might have if you had a lawyer
Note About Trip.com
As we've indicated, make sure you read and understand the terms and conditions of the specific OTA you want to book your travel with. If you book through Trip.com, be aware that you agree that Singapore law, not the law of your state, will determine the outcome of your dispute. You also agree that in the off-chance you do need to sue, any dispute between you and Trip.com may be brought in Singapore's courts. Fine if you happen to live in Singapore, but not so much if you live in New York or Florida.
A Lawyer May Be Able to Help
If you find yourself in a dispute with a travel booking site, your best bet is to start by contacting customer service. A representative or a travel agent may be able to help. Be polite. Explain what happened. Chances are that they will be willing to work with you if you are familiar with their refund policies. Who knows? Maybe you will be able to get your money back or a voucher good for future travel.
But if you have no such luck, consider consulting with an experienced contracts lawyer. Forming an attorney-client relationship will give you the chance to ask questions, better understand your rights, and get solid legal advice that can help you determine whether arbitration or a small-claims court case may be worth it.
Was this helpful?