Consumer rights dealing with online travel booking agencies
Booking online can be risky, but know your rights regarding lost booking records, price changes, and refunds and you’ll reduce your chances of losing money.
Photo Credit: Sean Locke
Using online travel booking agencies to secure airline tickets or hotel rooms is not only convenient, it's a great way to find discounts and sales. Unfortunately, though, this type of booking has more than its share of risks. These agencies process millions of bookings daily and can't always keep track of the details. All too often, unlucky customers find they've lost their booking and their money, and are unable to reach the booking agency's customer service department. While there are no federal laws governing consumer rights with online booking agencies, each agency has its own policy for dealing with common problems.
One of the most frustrating problems customers of online booking agencies face is that of lost or incorrect records. The customer may receive a confirmation e-mail and their credit card may be charged by the booking agency, but they may later discover that the airline, hotel, or tour company itself has no record of a booking ever being made. In this case, the airline or hotel has no responsibility because the booking was made through a third party. However, most booking agencies have a policy of issuing a full refund if a booking that was paid for was never actually made. Because many refund policies require customers to report problems within twenty-four hours, it's vital to contact the agency as soon as possible.
A less serious but far more common problem occurs when the price the online booking agency charged for the booking was lower than what the airline or hotel was charging at that time. This is one of the risks involved in booking deeply discounted tickets or accommodation. Many of these discounts are temporary sale prices and booking agencies simply don't have the staff to up-date listings for the thousands of companies in their database every time a sale ends. Almost no booking agency will offer any form of compensation when this happens. To keep the booking, the customer must pay the difference in price. Some booking agencies, however, guarantee the lowest prices available and state that they will pay the difference to any customer who finds a lower price with another online agency. Keep in mind, though, that these policies usually have tight restrictions. For instance, if a customer finds a lower airfare, it must be for the same airline, not just the same destination. In most cases, to be eligible for this refund, customers must report the lower price to the booking agency within twenty-four hours of making the booking.
Disappointment with quality is a problem particular to booking accommodation sight unseen. Online booking agencies know that it's next to impossible to determine the quality of a room just from photographs and, sadly, some agencies take advantage of this fact to book less-than-desirable rooms. Generally, making sense of misleading photographs and descriptions is the customer's responsibility. Call the booking agency to complain about your room and you'll most likely be told to talk to the hotel's property manager. If you find you've been booked into substandard accommodations, the booking agency has no obligation to compensate you.
Each online booking agency has its own refund policy, but most policies cover the same types of situations. Lost records, incorrect credit card charges, cancellation before a stated deadline, and cancellation due to illness or a natural disaster will almost always get you a refund. Even within one booking agency, refund eligibility requirements differ depending on which airline or hotel you've booked with and which class of service you've chosen. Some agencies have a policy of not giving refunds for anything once booked, although this is most likely to happen with deeply discounted offers. Other agencies state that in order to be eligible for a refund in the future, you must pay in full when you book. In addition, customers must cancel anywhere between seventy-two to twenty-four hours in advance, depending on the agency's policy. One of the major benefits of booking online is that payments are made by credit card. Most credit card companies are willing to negotiate refunds on the customer's behalf. If you have difficulty getting the refund you're owed, contact your credit card company. Finally, if negotiating with the booking agency and your credit card company gets you nowhere, if you took out trip insurance, you may be able to file a claim for your losses.
Reaching customer service
Just because an online booking agency posts a phone number on its Web page doesn't mean it's easy to reach the customer service department. Booking agencies are under no legal obligation to make their staff accessible. While some online booking agencies provide round-the-clock customer service and promise to respond to inquiries within a few hours, others state that they'll take care of your request as soon as possible, which could mean weeks. If you call customer service, once you get past the recorded message, the person you reach may know little about how to solve your problem. If this happens, you can appeal to a higher authority and ask for their supervisor. Also, remember to keep copies of any e-mails or letters you send to the agency regarding your problem.
Although online booking agencies offer convenience and low prices, from a consumer rights standpoint, using them does entail more risk than booking through a traditional travel agency. Be aware of your rights regarding lost records, price changes, and refunds and you'll have a much better chance of at least getting your money back should something go wrong.