While checking the Web for a Miami hotel last April, David Manero of Hyattsville found an irresistible deal: a $100 room at the Breakwater in South Beach offered by the Hotel Distribution Network, a discount reservations agency. That was $42 off the usual starting rate.
Manero reserved four nights and prepaid with a credit card. But when he and his family arrived in August, the property had no vacant rooms and was no longer affiliated with HDN, which is based in Sanford, Fla. Manero couldn't reach an HDN operator, either, leaving him on his own to find another hotel. Two months, a dozen calls and countless e-mails later, he's still waiting for an explanation.
For frequent patrons of online hotel-booking services, Manero's saga may have a familiar ring. In recent weeks, the Travel section has received correspondence from disgruntled customers of many major Internet hotel and travel booking sites (Hotels.com, Expedia.com, Travelocity.com, Quikbook.com, Orbitz.com, etc.); the sites of chains such as Days Inn and Starwood Hotels and Resorts; and some of the smaller agencies such as HDN. The complaints range from misplaced reservations to finding out they could have gotten a cheaper rate for the same hotel elsewhere.
"More and more you can get some fantastic deals for rooms on the Web," said Bob Jones, a consumer advocate featured on OneTravel.com, a discount Web site. "But you have to be careful or else you could find yourself out of a lot of money with little recourse."
Attempts to reach customer service personnel -- if you can even find the phone number in the online maze -- often lead to a labyrinth of recorded greetings, unhelpful form letters and ill-informed agents. When I called HDN to ask about Manero's case, I was put on hold. "Your call is important to us," a voice said at two-minute intervals. "There are four calls ahead of you." After 40 minutes, I gave up.
Frequently offering discounts of 50 percent or more off regular rates, Internet hotel agencies can be a boon for travelers. And their popularity is growing: Forrester Research, a Cambridge, Mass., consulting firm, predicts that U.S. hotels will get roughly 15 percent of their revenue from online bookings in 2004, up from about 8 percent this year.
As a frequent user of Internet booking agencies, I hit snags regularly. A few months ago, I reserved a room at New York's Edison Hotel with Hotels.com, one of the largest online discounters, but when I arrived the staff had no record of my reservation. After two calls to the agency, the hotel gave me a room for the price that Hotels.com had promised. More recently, I prepaid for a room at the Monaco in Denver with Priceline.com, but when I checked out, the hotel insisted I pay it directly. (Priceline later refunded my account.)
Even with the most reliable companies, things don't always run smoothly. When I wanted to add a couple of days to my stay at a Miami hotel reserved through Quikbook, it was impossible to get a live operator on a Sunday afternoon. I ended up extending directly with the hotel -- at a higher rate. (Quikbook has recently added operators on weekends.)
Quikbook President Ray Vastola, who says his agency rarely receives complaints, blames technology for many of the snafus other companies experience. "With millions of transactions taking place every day between agencies and hotels that operate on different [reservations] systems," he said, "some things are going to fall through the cracks."
Joe McInerney, president of the American Hotel & Lodging Association in Washington, takes a more critical view. "These problems occur because most third-party hotel booking sites are in the business of selling rooms but are not well trained in hospitality or service," he said. "They are not concerned about keeping the customer satisfied."
The sheer volume of rooms booked also comes into play. Although better known for selling airline tickets, Expedia and Travelocity, for example, do a whopping business in hotel reservations. Expedia says it booked more than 11 million rooms in 2002, more than any other Web agency.
For its part, Travelweb.com, which launched this summer and is partly owned by several major U.S. hotel chains, wants to lure customers away from the third-party agencies. The pitch: Patrons won't experience lost reservations and other problems because the site is connected directly to the chains' booking systems, thus eliminating the middleman -- the online discounters who must transfer their clients' reservations to the hotels.
Is it working? "I think it's too early to say," said Ed Perkins, an Oregon consumer travel advocate formerly with Consumer Reports Travel Letter.
Whatever the process, booking online -- while often rewarding -- can be a risky endeavour. Here are some of the common problems and suggested solutions or ways to avoid them.
The Problem: Receiving a refund can be difficult. Agencies tie up the process in red tape, often taking two months or longer to reimburse .
Example: Manero, in his dealings with HDN, called and e-mailed the company several times after returning from his Miami trip but couldn't connect with its customer service department.
I made two calls to HDN but got recordings routing me to voice mail. Two e-mails went unanswered. Eventually, Manero asked his credit card company, American Express, to intervene. He later received a letter from HDN saying a refund would be posted to his credit card. After three weeks, it arrived.
Although the larger agencies declined to disclose how often refunds are requested, Michael Zaletel, president of i4vegas.com, which books Vegas resorts, said 10 to 12 percent of its customers ask for refunds. In most instances, the requests are the result of changes in travel plans, Zaletel said.
Manero's case, in which no hotel room was provided, is just one of several instances in which travelers should be eligible for refunds. Others include:
Major problems with the room or service.
Cancellation of prepaid reservations made within an established time frame.
Overcharges or double-billing to a credit card.
When travel is impossible because of a hurricane or other natural disaster.
Kurt Weinsheimer, vice president of hotels for Orbitz, puts it bluntly. "Hotel sites work somewhat like airlines," he said. "The deeper discount you get, the harder it is to get a refund."
The Solution: Spokespeople for the major reservations sites advise customers to keep printouts of the confirmation number and all transactions, as well as familiarize themselves with the refund policies of the agency and hotel where they reserve.
This is key, as eligibility requirements for refunds differ among companies, room categories and particular deals. For instance, once rooms are booked on Priceline.com and Hotwire.com, two reverse-auction travel sites, no refunds are granted.