Traditional travel agents are a dying breed, and yet Americans are increasingly turning to travel agencies to book their tickets and to make reservations. How is this possible?
People are using online travel portals, which are basically just highly automated travel agents. These sites, such as Expedia and Travelocity, trade the hands-on service of a traditional travel agency for rock-bottom prices possible through automation and volume. Unfortunately, these low prices can come at a cost. When a trip is booked on an online portal, there are several issues that can arise.
Here are five problems that users of online travel agencies can face, and some tips on fixing them or avoiding them in the first place…
1. Dropped bookings
CNN Money recently documented a case where reporter confirmed a hotel room through Expedia, only to find out that property couldn’t accommodate him. It was later revealed that Expedia’s reservation system wasn’t synchronized with the hotel’s, which had already sold out. Other travel sites reported these same problems happening on occasion, with the notable exception of Priceline.
How to avoid this: To ensure availability, contact the hotel directly to confirm your reservation. It’s always possible that even if you do this, there may still be a problem by the time you arrive. But it’s much less likely. And it helps to note the name of the person you spoke with, as well as the time and day.
2. Requirements listed as preferences
I prefer Coke over Pepsi, but I can’t tolerate having my family stay in a hotel room that reeks of smoke. Nevertheless, many online portals will list key hotel room choices – such as bed types and smoking rooms – merely as preferences that they won’t guarantee.
How to avoid this: First, scrutinize the fine print to make sure that the website guarantees the room you want, paying attention to weasel words like preference. If you need a nonsmoking room and the site won’t guarantee it, go back and reserve a hotel that’s entirely nonsmoking. If you’re already stuck with a reservation from a site without the right guarantees, call the hotel and ask a manager to set aside the type of room you need. They’ll usually do this – it’s harder to say no to a living, breathing, speaking person.
3. Receiving the worst room
Most hotels would rather have their customers book their rooms directly than have to pay a commission to online portals. These properties may look at customers who book through portals as being less profitable and less loyal. Therefore, they’re more likely to offer these customers less desirable rooms – such as those that haven’t been renovated or are in a noisy area.
How to avoid this: Before you leave home, do your research on sites like TripAdvisor that offer opinions on not just the hotel itself, but which rooms are best. Then, contact the hotel the morning before you check in and ask them to set aside one of the rooms you would like. Finally, the earlier you arrive, the less likely you are to be stuck with worst room in the house.
Your reservation says one thing, but the hotel (or airline or rental car agency) says something else. Worse, each one repeatedly pins the blame on the other. I see this often when an airline’s scheduling change affects a reservation or when I’m asked to sign a rental car contract with different terms than what was booked.
How to avoid this: Remember that the online portal is still your travel agent. You gave them money, and they pocketed a commission. The buck stops with them, and their guarantees are meant to assure this. For example, Expedia promises that your travel “will meet the descriptions on our site and in your itinerary…or we will work with our partners on your behalf to find a solution.” If your travel agent keeps telling you to call someone else, you will need to remind them that this is their job. As a last resort, you can threaten a chargeback if necessary.
5. Undisclosed hotel fees
Online portals should be prohibited from booking reservations that don’t include all mandatory fees. Merely stating in the fine print that prices may not reflect additional fees is not disclosure. This isn’t about taxes, and it’s not about optional fees such as parking. “Resort fees,” “energy surcharges,” and anything else that customers must pay later should be clearly disclosed – but too often they’re not.
How to avoid this: The only way to truly avoid these fees is to contact the hotel before booking to ask about them. If you want to be extra safe, have them send you an email listing any mandatory fees. Save a copy of the email just in case your bill doesn’t reflect what you were quoted. For more information, see our 6 Ways to Avoid Sneaky Hotel Fees.