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Tuesday 19 November 2019

Your money: Check out the hidden pitfalls of using hotel booking websites

Know the problems you may face when booking hotel stays through middlemen, writes Louise McBride

Online booking agents have become increasingly popular in recent years. Stock photo
Online booking agents have become increasingly popular in recent years. Stock photo
Louise McBride

Louise McBride

Many of the families taking a short getaway over the Halloween mid-term break may have booked their stay through an online booking agent - rather than directly with a hotel or holiday home owner. Online booking agents - which allow you to search for, and book, accommodation and sometimes flights and car hire - have become increasingly popular in recent years.

However, some people have run into problems after using them. Indeed, most of the complaints about hotels and accommodation which were handled by the Dublin-based consumer watchdog, ECC Ireland, last year concerned bookings made through online agents.

"Consumers often encountered difficulties when trying to cancel their booking, not realising that the accommodation provider and the booking agent may have separate and distinct cancellation policies," said ECC Ireland in its latest annual report, which was published last month. "Difficulties also arose for consumers when seeking to determine whether their final contract was made with the intermediary or the accommodation provider. A large proportion of complaints related to the accommodation being substandard or not as described."

Some of the other complaints dealt with by ECC Ireland arose as a result of rooms not being available after the accommodation had been booked through an agent - with the customer often only learning this when trying to check in at the hotel.

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Online booking agents can offer a quick, easy way to find and book accommodation, particularly for a place never visited before. However, to ensure your stay runs smoothly and that you get the best deal possible, here are some rules of thumb to follow when using a booking agent.

IGNORE 'PRESSING' MESSAGES

Ignore messages such as 'only one room left at this price', 'only one room left on our site', 'booked once [or indeed, any number of times] in the last 24 hours' - or other suggestions that a hotel room is in high demand.

Such messages may be giving a false impression of a hotel room's popularity - or incorrectly suggesting there is a limit on the amount of time available to get a room at a specific price. Unless you ignore these messages, you could make a hasty decision and lose out on a better deal elsewhere.

"The advice we've always given [to consumers] is to completely ignore these 'one room left only' messages," said Rory Boland, editor with Which Travel, a magazine published by the British Consumers' Association, Which. The claims in these messages are often untrue - and may give an inaccurate picture of room availability, according to recent research by Which.

It is worth noting that in the UK, most hotel booking websites - including booking agents such as Booking.com and Expedia, and a number of major hotel chains - have signed up to new rules. These aim to prevent practices which could mislead customers, such as not displaying the full cost of a hotel room upfront, giving a false impression of a room's popularity, and dishonestly claiming that rooms are discounted.

The rules were put in place by the British regulator, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), following recent enforcement action taken against six firms - Booking.com, Expedia, hotels.com, Ebookers, Agoda and Trivago - over concerns the CMA had around issues like pressure-selling and misleading discount claims. All six firms have agreed to abide by the regulator's new principles for businesses offering online accommodation booking services.

For example, Booking.com said that it had "worked hard to implement the commitments agreed with the CMA".

WATCH OUT FOR SPONSORED LISTINGS

When you search a list of hotels on a booking agent's website, watch out for those which are listed as 'sponsored', as this will usually mean that the venue has paid extra to secure a prominent position on the page. For example, Booking.com uses a yellow thumbs-up icon to indicate a hotel's listing is sponsored, and states this icon means "the property may pay Booking.com a bit more". On Expedia, the word 'sponsored' is featured in the image of the hotel to indicate a listing is sponsored.

GET THE FULL PRICE

Before booking accommodation through a booking agent, check if the price quoted on its website is the full cost you will pay - or if you will face additional charges after check-in. This is particularly the case if planning to stay in a resort hotel in the US. Resort fees - which may need to be paid to use the pool or gym - could come to $20 (€18) or $35 a night or more, and if these fees are not included in your room rate, they can significantly push up the cost of a stay.

So, if planning to stay in a resort in the US, find out if the advertised room rate includes taxes, resort fees, parking and breakfast - or if you will have to pay extra for these or other items.

"You could face extra charges for simple stuff that you expect to be covered - such as towels or use of the hotel pool," said Eoghan Corry, editor of Travel Extra magazine. "This mainly happens in the US but is creeping in a little in Europe."

The listing provided by your booking agent should include a breakdown of the items included in the price quoted for your accommodation - such as bed sheets, towels, safety deposit box, and Wi-Fi. However, if there is a message that you may face additional charges, check the hotel's fine print to find out what those extra costs will be - or ask the hotel directly.

CHECK THE CONTRACT

Check the terms and conditions of any accommodation booking you plan to make. Doing so should let you know where you stand, what recourse you have, and who to complain to should you run into problems. Some booking agents, hotels and accommodation providers have fairer and more flexible terms and conditions than others, so be careful who you book with.

Be aware that you will usually have two sets of terms and conditions to abide by: those of the booking agent, and those of the hotel or accommodation provider.

Checking the conditions in advance is particularly important if there is a chance that you may need to cancel the booking in the future.

Instructions around how to cancel a booking will usually be in the confirmation email you receive from an online booking agent after you have made the booking. If not, this information may be outlined in an itinerary which you can access online.

The terms and conditions should tell you if and when you have the right to cancel the booking, how exactly to cancel it (if you can), and any fees you will incur if changing or cancelling it.

"With a hotel booking, you may have a certain amount of days to cancel your booking - or you may only be allowed to cancel in certain circumstances," said Martina Nee, spokeswoman for ECC Ireland.

RECORD YOUR BOOKING

When using an online booking agent, take screen shots of each step of the process.

"That way, if a booking agent's listing has said that the hotel has a pool - and you arrive to find that there's none - you have the proof [that you were told otherwise]," said Nee.

BOOK DIRECTLY WITH THE HOTEL

Rather than booking through an online agent, consider using its website to find a hotel you are interested in, and then book a room with the hotel directly. You are unlikely to get a cheaper price directly from the hotel, as they often cannot undercut the price offered by an online booking agent due to the contract between the venue and the agent. "However, even if the hotel can't give you a discount, it may give you a free upgrade," said Boland.

Ask the hotel if it can match the price quoted by a booking agent."Hotels will often match the price quoted by a booking agent if you ring up the hotel directly," said Corry. Remember, a hotel will usually save on commission if it can take a booking directly from a guest - rather than from an agent - and for this reason, it may be willing to match an agent's prices. So, it is a question certainly worth asking if you feel it would be simpler to book directly with a hotel.

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