On Orbitz, some rooms are sold at special "Orbitz Saver" rates, significant discounts the company negotiates. You must pay in full at the time of booking, and to receive a full refund (minus a $25 cancellation fee), you must cancel at least 72 hours in advance. Travelers canceling less than 72 hours before arrival may qualify for partial refunds. Expedia, Travelocity and other agencies offer comparable special deals, with similar policies.
By comparison, for non-deep-discounted rooms, travelers usually must cancel within 24 hours before arrival to get a refund, though you may be subject to a cancellation fee. Hotels.com charges $25 for all cancellations, for example, while Quikbook charges $10 for cancellations of prepaid rooms -- and nothing if you cancel in time for a room that wasn't prepaid.
If a refund is due, go after it promptly, providing all supporting documents. Even in instances where the refund requirements are not fully met, ask for one. (Bob Diener, president of Hotels.com, said that in some extraordinary circumstances, such as a death or sickness, refund restrictions can be waived.)
OneTravel's Jones recommends that travelers concerned about recouping their money should consider travel insurance. "It's important to be aware of the circumstances under which the insurance company will help you get a refund," he said. "But if you qualify, they will save you from a major headache."
In all cases, customers should pin down customer service agents on how long it should take for a refund. If it does not come through by that date, contact the credit card company used for the reservation, which can do much of the legwork.
The Problem: Customer service staff at online agencies and hotel front desks can be unresponsive, unhelpful, rude or, worse, unreachable.
Example: Last May, Nina Basu of Columbia used Travelocity to prepay for two nights at the Ramada Inn in White River Junction, Vt. En route, she called the hotel and learned that it had changed ownership and name -- to the Regency. A desk clerk told her they had no record of her reservation and no rooms. She then called Travelocity, which offered her lodging in Boston and other far-off locales before eventually finding her a room at the original hotel.
But after the first night, she was locked out by hotel management and had to talk her way back into the room. The desk clerk said she had paid for only one night, even though she had prepaid Travelocity for two. Basu faults both the Regency and Travelocity for not dealing with her problem promptly, and "poor customer service" in general.
Although Travelocity declined to comment on the specifics of Basu's case, Josh Feuerstein, vice president for the site's hotels, said the agency's "customer-service reps are especially trained to handle problems. We encourage customers with problems to contact them."
Basu said she did just that. And though she got her room, it wasn't until nine weeks, eight calls and several e-mails later that she received a response to her complaints. Although she was technically not owed a refund, Travelocity granted one.
"What I really wanted was an apology," she said. "And I still haven't gotten one. That makes me reluctant to deal with them anytime soon."
The Solution: For urgent assistance (e.g., you arrive at 10 p.m. and find the hotel has no room), call the Web service's help desk. (For phone numbers, hours and e-mail and mailing addresses, see Page P7).
Unfortunately, in many instances the person working the service desk does little more than repeat vague company positions -- and sometimes it takes a while to reach someone. If the first operator (or desk clerk) is not responsive, ask for a supervisor. "People should not be shy about pushing their cases," advises Quikbook's Vastola.
Otherwise, the agencies encourage customers to send questions or problems by e-mail. Expedia, Orbitz and Travelocity promise responses within about four hours any time of the day or night. Lodging.com says it will get back to you "as soon as possible." Hotels.com doesn't indicate how long it will take.
Customers should write to the online agency and file a complaint with the Better Business Bureau. Web sites such as www.bizrate.com, www.complaints.com and www.epinions.com offer venues to post complaints about Internet businesses. Simply reading the postings might help you learn from others' mistakes.
A last-ditch option for dissatisfied guests is to sue in small-claims court, said Perkins, the consumer rights advocate. "It may turn out to be more time-consuming and cause more heartache than it's worth," he said. "But it's the only legal recourse I know of open to those unable to come to terms with the agency or the hotel."
The Problem: The amenities of the room you booked online, and the hotel itself, are substandard.
Example: When Erin Feuillet of Damascus and a friend arrived at the North Beach Days Inn in Miami last New Year's, she was shocked. "It smelled of mold, the carpet was dirty and the lock didn't work right," she said. "It was nothing like what I expected when I booked on the company's Web site." A call to the Days Inn customer service line was not helpful. "They told us that the problem had to be resolved with the hotel's management."
But there were no other rooms available at the hotel or any others in the area in her price range. "We just had to put up with it and stayed in the room as little as possible." A couple of weeks later, hotel management sent her a certificate for a two-night stay at a Days Inn resort. She doubts she'll accept the offer.
Days Inn spokesman Emanuel Naim declined to comment on Feuillet's case except to say, "We're sorry that it happened." He explained that inspectors visit Days Inn properties four times a year and recommend improvements if they're needed.
The Solution: If you don't like the room you're assigned, request another one. Pronto. And it never hurts to have a backup hotel in mind, particularly for long trips.
Naim said dissatisfied Days Inn customers should bypass the front desk and appeal to the property manager. If that doesn't result in a satisfactory change, they should call the chain's customer service line and, finally, the president's line, a special service that addresses serious complaints. Cendant Corp., which owns Days Inn and other chains, is one of the few companies with special staff designated for dealing with hard-to-resolve cases.
Spokesmen for the online agencies said customer complaints are passed on to hotels. "If customers consistently complain about a property, we will take it off the site," said Orbitz's Weinsheimer. Travelocity and Expedia have similar policies.
Still, it's best to do some research before jumping on the latest Web "hot deal." Read the description of the property thoroughly. See whether a pool, health club or restaurant are on-site and what other attractions are nearby. Peruse the pictures, too, but be wary -- photographed the right way, nearly anything can look good.
Also, the rating systems used by most of the online agencies can be helpful. (Travelocity, for example, uses AAA ratings and in-house inspectors for some properties and also publishes guest reviews of some of its hotels.) Calling the hotel to find out if there is construction going on might spare you lost sleep after arriving.
Secondary sources are usually more objective. Start with guidebooks; the AAA and Mobil guides, which inspect many properties and rate them, are good resources. Fodor's, Frommer's and Lonely Planet often have reliable hotel reviews, too. Check Web sites such as Tripadvisor.com and HotelShark.com, which offer independent reviews by former guests (see box, Page P6).