Surprising Risks of Booking a Hotel Through an Online Travel Site
Sometimes a too-good-to-be-true travel deal is exactly that: too good to be true
Look closely at that hotel booking website before you pay for a reservation. Instead of taking a great trip, you could get taken for a ride. Here's how a deal that sounds amazing can go south if you choose to use a discount booking site when you travel.
A low rate that's too low
Hotels aren't obligated to honor a reservation made and paid for online. “I remember a guy coming in with a reservation from an online booking agency and my manager refused to honor it,” a former hotel reservations clerk notes. “He said there was no way the hotel would agree to a rate like that.”
“Sometimes things are too good to be true,” says Steve McIninch, a travel consultant at Globe Travel in Charlottesville, Virginia. “A hotel does have the right to not honor a rate, even though you’ve already paid.”
You're especially likely to encounter this during high volume travel periods, such as in university towns during graduation weekends. "You can’t waltz into a hotel with a $69 reservation when they’re charging — and plenty of people are paying — $350 to $400 a night with a three-night minimum," he says. "They’re not going to honor that rate you got on the Internet.”
Even worse, it's often the case that the booking website has a no-refund policy. Be sure to read all fine print if you use one.
A lack of amenities
Travelers who get a steep discount by booking hotels online often discover upon arrival they aren't eligible for certain amenities — free parking, for example, or any parking at all. TripAdvisor is rife with posts from travelers who have sticker shock from unexpected charges for parking or are furious they have to park half a mile away from the hotel. If you book a hotel online, call to find out its policies on parking and other amenities ahead of time.
The unwary also may fall prey to fake hotel booking websites run by scammers. Some of these even include actual photos of the hotel you think you’re booking to appear authentic. When you reach your destination, though, the hotel has never heard of you. No reservation. No room. And no money: The scammers will already have raided your credit card. And the hotel can’t give you a refund because it never received payment.
In a 2015 survey, the American Hotel & Lodging Association found 6 percent of U.S. travelers who had booked a hotel online had been scammed by an imposter site. The association estimates 15 million fraudulent hotel bookings took place online in 2014, resulting in consumer losses of $1.3 billion.
Related: Hotel Safety: What You Don't Know...
Avoiding hotel booking snafus
Here are some tips from travel agents and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) for avoiding hotel booking problems and getting a good deal, whether you book online or not.
Check the URL of hotel sites to make sure they're legitimate. Verify you’re on a secure payment site. The URL should include a small icon of a padlock and will start with https:// (not http://).
Find out if the hotel will honor your loyalty “points.” If you're a member of a hotel loyalty program, make sure the booking site is affiliated with the hotel. If it isn’t, you may not earn points for your stay.
Keep an eye out for new hotel booking scams. The FTC posts up-to-date information on hotel booking scams on its website. If you’ve been lied to or scammed by an online booking site, file a complaint with the FTC.
Book through a travel agent. Most are integrated directly into hotel reservation systems, McIninch says. A reputable consultant can guarantee the rates he offers. With many third-party sites, however, even legitimate ones, all sales are final. “Let’s say you have to cancel outright. If you book online, chances are you’ve lost your money,” says Beverly McLean, director of social media for Covington Travel, based in Richmond, Virginia. "A travel agency's relationship with hotels make a difference. In many cases we can negotiate it so there’s no cancellation charge.”
Travel agents also will help you work with the hotel if you're refused a late check-out or encounter other issues. Many third-party vendors will be of little help if you're traveling abroad and encounter a problem halfway around the world, McIninch says.
Book directly through the hotel. Ask what discounts are available. Often these aren't advertised. Find out whether there are discounts for returning customers, for booking multiple days or for seniors, veterans, business people or members of automobile associations. Depending on the hotel, you may wind up with a better price than you could get with an online booking agency.
If you're really looking for a bargain, call the hotel directly and ask if it has any rooms that aren't occupied because of a minor problem (such as a TV that's not working). Sometimes you'll be able to get a steep discount.
The same applies if you just show up: After 6 p.m., many hotels are willing to discount regular rooms; after 8 p.m., you may be able to get an even better deal.