Online travel company lawsuits heat up, cool off

Going back more than 10 years, U.S. city and state governments have been suing online travel sites for underpaying general excise and hotel taxes. Now, lawsuits filed years ago are being heard and the story continues as mixed verdicts come in.

First, here’s the beef. Online travel companies purchase unused hotel room inventory and then sell those rooms to consumers at a marked-up price. The online travel company pays the hotel occupancy tax on the discounted rate that it purchased from hotels and not on the rate charged to its consumers.

Cities from Honolulu to Houston to Washington D.C say “that’s not right” and want the taxes actually charged to be paid.

Online travel companies like Expedia, Orbitz, Travelocity,,, Priceline and others say “forget it, we’re not paying.”

Some lose, some win as the issue plays itself out.

In January, Houston, Texas lost it’s battle when a a Texas trial court judge dismissed the allegations. “These claims are not based on law, but on the greed of plaintiffs’ attorneys,” Andrew Weinstein, spokesperson for the Interactive Travel Services Association told the Southeast Texas Record.

It’s a sketchy claim at best and both sides have their share of supporters and valid points.

“If the city’s right, all that means is there’s been an under-collection of taxes, and the city can’t sue us for that,” said Frank Lowrey, an attorney representing the firms to Business Week. “They’re telling us to collect more taxes than we said we would collect.”

Similar lawsuits or complaints have been filed around the country by cities and states including in Oklahoma, Maryland, Texas, New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania and in the California cities of San Diego and San Francisco. While some of the complaints have been dismissed, several are still pending.

Is this just cities and states grasping at any possible income source, however bizzare it may sound? Maybe, but that’s nothing new either. Just last year Gadling reported on how the state of Tennessee wanted to tax complementary hotel breakfasts and before that we reported how taxes are becoming a larger part of travel expenses all the time as cities and states are pumping up their coffers at the expense of visitors.

Those who lay claim to jobs as lawmakers may not have the oldest profession in the world but sometimes they sure act like it.

Flickr photo by Love My Tours

Related Stories