Can I sue an online travel booking site like Expedia?
You can, but suing an online travel booking site is hard to win. When you use an online travel agency, you accept the terms and conditions of the site. You must read them carefully. You will see that the Terms contain extensive disclaimers, limitations of liability, and may contain limits on how long you can seek relief.
And if you do pursue a lawsuit, you’re usually limited to pursuing arbitration or taking your case to small claims court. If you decide to do this, you should consider speaking with a contract lawyer.
Online travel booking is easy and convenient
Online travel booking has changed the way people travel. About 83% of American adults prefer to book their travel online. Although travel has plummeted during the coronavirus pandemic, it is expected to almost return to pre-pandemic levels by the end of 2022. By 2023, online bookings in the travel industry are expected to exceed 700 millions of people.
While there are many online travel agencies (OTAs), travel fare aggregators, and travel metasearch engines (we refer to them collectively as “online booking sites” or simply “sites”), there are three major players in the sector on which we will focus. 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 revenue, generated largely from operating the following sites:
- Price line
- open table
Expedia Group, Inc. is an American online travel agency based in Seattle. In 2021, Expedia brought in $8.6 billion in revenue, generated largely by the following well-known sites:
Trip.com Group is a Chinese online travel agency that provides services in many countries. Founded in 1999, it is one of the largest travel service providers in the world. The Trip.com Group operates Trip.com, which is based in Singapore.
Online booking is not always smooth
It’s a cold Minnesota winter and you decide to head to San Diego for Comic-Con. You book your trip through Expedia. You get a great deal on airfare with Delta, an upscale hotel on the beach, and a rental car. You enter your credit card information and get confirmation that the transaction was successful.
You navigate through 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 get to the office and they can’t find your reservation, even with the confirmation number you gave 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 taxi 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 booked) is part of a chain of hotels in San Clemente (better there than Los Angeles, you think) . It’s over an hour’s drive away. You spend the convention driving back and forth, and because of the ridiculous traffic jams, you end up missing the Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power sign you’ve been dying to see. So much for your travel plans.
Your trip ends up costing you a lot more than expected. And you are crazy. So you decide to consider what your options are.
OTA Terms and Conditions
When you created an account on the site, you entered into a contract with the OTA. This contract is governed by the terms and conditions of the site, which you can usually find via a link at the bottom of the page. Although the terms of each OTA vary (be sure to read them carefully), Booking.com, Expedia and Trip.com have similar terms and conditions.
As you will see, they are quite one-sided and strictly limit your right to any remedy. We’ll use Expedia’s terms as an example.
The first major hurdle you face is the site’s disclaimer. A disclaimer is a limitation or denial of rights under a warranty. A warranty is a guarantee in a contract that the services provided will meet certain standards of quality and reliability. Many contracts include warranties. Warranties and disclaimers are usually enforced by the courts.
In your case, the terms of the OTA specifically exclude 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 have a hard time convincing a judge that you can get anything back.
The second hurdle you face is OTA damage limitation. The term “damages” refers to money you can recover in a lawsuit, usually to compensate you for losses you have suffered. This amount generally includes incidental damages (usually out-of-pocket expenses) and consequential damages (losses that naturally result from a breach of contract).
OTA terms and conditions limit your recoverable damages in two ways. First, they expressly disclaim all compensation for incidental damages and consequential damages of any kind. This therefore means that you will not be able to recover reimbursable expenses or foreseeable losses.
Second, some OTA conditions limit the damage you can recover to a specific number. For example, Expedia’s terms and conditions limit your recovery to the greater of the Expedia service fee you paid or $100. You might be able to persuade a judge that these damages limitations aren’t enforceable (and in some states they aren’t), but the onus would be on you.
A third hurdle you may face, according to the OTA, are delays. Priceline, for example, says you only have two years to file a claim. You may not have a problem with this, but most states allow you much longer to file a claim based on the terms of a contract.
What if you want legal relief?
Let’s say that despite these hurdles, you still want to sue Expedia. The terms and conditions also limit your rights in this respect. You are really limited to two options.
One is to pursue arbitration. Arbitration is a legal process in which the parties engage an impartial third party (the arbitrator), usually a lawyer or a former judge, to decide their dispute. Each party typically exchanges relevant documents and then submits written arguments to the arbitrator as to why they should win the dispute. Then, the arbitrator hears the testimonies of the witnesses and examines any evidence that the parties submit in support of their respective claims. Arbitration can be, but is not always, an easier and less expensive way to resolve a legal dispute.
However, when you agree to arbitrate your claims against a CTO, you are giving up several important legal rights:
- The right to have a jury of your peers decide the facts of your case and determine the amount of damages you are entitled to recover
- The right to appeal the referee’s decision
- The right to join your claims with those of others in the same situation (this is called a class action or class arbitration waiver)
Some OTAs may allow you to opt out of arbitration if you follow certain specified procedures, so be sure to read the terms and conditions carefully.
Small Claims Court
The second option is to file a lawsuit in the small claims court where you live. Small claims courts are courts that, as their name suggests, deal with disputes less than an amount determined by state law. The amount varies from state to state, but it ranges from $2,500 to $25,000. If your damages are below the legal limit, small claims court may be an option for you.
Filing a claim in Small Claims Court is easy. You fill out the paperwork (usually a summons, complaint, and 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 for your case to be called, and then you present your case to the judge. Be sure to bring all your documents and any witnesses you wish to testify with you. When you are finished, the judge makes a decision on the spot or takes the case under advisement, in which case you will be informed of the court’s decision later. Easy.
You are not required to have an attorney in small claims court, and in some states you are not allowed to have an attorney represent you in court. This can reduce your legal costs, but there are downsides:
- The process may take longer
- You may need to spend a lot of your time gathering your evidence and preparing your case
- You can make mistakes
- You may not be able to recover as much as if you had a lawyer
Note about Trip.com
As we have stated, be sure to read and understand the terms and conditions of the specific OTA you wish to book your trip with. If you book through Trip.com, please know that you agree that Singapore law, not your state law, will determine the outcome of your dispute. You also agree that in the event that you need to take legal action, any dispute between you and Trip.com may be brought in the courts of Singapore. Fine if you 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 conflict with a travel booking site, it is best to start by contacting customer service. A travel representative or agent may be able to help you. Be polite. Explain what happened. Chances are they’ll be willing to work with you if you know their refund policies. Who knows? Maybe you can get your money back or a voucher for future travel.
But if you’re not so lucky, consider consulting an experienced contract lawyer. Establishing an attorney-client relationship will give you the opportunity to ask questions, better understand your rights, and obtain solid legal advice that can help you determine whether arbitration or a matter in court small claims can be worth it.