Finding and booking a hotel room online is easier than ever -- but it’s also becoming increasingly risky.
According to the American Hotel and Lodging Association (AHLA), American travelers make approximately 15 million fake hotel bookings on rogue sites every year. As if that wasn't bad enough, the AHLA says travelers lose $1.3 billion every year on booking scams that include rogue sites posing as real hotels, taking your credit card number, and possibly leaving you without a reservation.
After years of frustration, several members of Congress introduced the Stop Online Booking Scams Act on Feb. 9. If passed, the bill would require third-party sites to clearly state that they are not affiliated with the hotel the customer is attempting to book. The bill would also give states more power in pursuing scammers in federal court.
The bill could be an important step for consumer rights, but for right now, the best thing travelers can do to protect themselves is to be alert when booking a hotel online. Here are some tips.
Book directly with the hotel
Third-party sites like Expedia and Kayak are a godsend for bargain-hunting travelers -- they do the comparison shopping for you with a few simple clicks, scouring thousands of hotels all over the world in seconds, but they aren't always the best place to book.
In fact, according to the AHLA, 56% of Americans say they’d rather book directly on a hotel’s website just to ensure that everything is on the up and up.
But unaffilated sites have caught on, with some creating operations meant to look like the actual hotel. These sites will often appear at the top of search results as a paid "ad" and are easy to click if you aren't paying attention. The AHLA claims that one site to look out for is ReservationCounter. However, ReservationCounter maintains that they follow the hotel reservation and cancellation policies established by the hotel. Either way, examine the link before you click to ensure it belongs to the site you're actually attempting to book on.
It’s probably best practice to find a hotel through a site like Expedia, but make the reservation directly on the hotel’s site. If the rate on Expedia is substantially cheaper, it sometimes works to call the hotel and ask them to match the price.
Pick the right third-party site
Consumers make 250 million hotels bookings online every year, and for good reason: It’s so easy. But you have to choose wisely.
All third-party sites are not created equal, and trusting the wrong one can mean lost money or confusion when you arrive at the hotel. If you don’t book directly with the hotel, be sure to use one of the more well-known sites -- like Expedia, Orbitz, Priceline -- and approved by the Better Business Bureau (BBB). While checking for BBB accreditation, you can also read previous complaints filed by customers and look for red flags that could lead to trouble down the road.
Avoid hidden fees
Extra fees are one of the biggest ways customers are scammed when booking online. If you’re booking on a third-party site, take the time to read the fine print that customers often skip over. Look for vaguely labeled hyperlinks and odd charges that don’t make sense. One common charge is for a resort fee that will typcially cost around $17 per night. However, Hotels Revealed reports that some hotels can charge up to $160 a night for resort fees! Additional hidden charges include an in-room safe surcharge, exercise facility fees, parking fees, and fees for holding luggage after checkout. You typically can’t avoid these fees, but at you don’t want to be surprised when you get a bill that’s $160 more than you expected.
Get your rewards points
The AHLA survey found that 15% of people complained they didn’t get their rewards points after booking a hotel online. In some cases, hotel rewards programs only apply points to bookings made directly through their website. For instance, Hilton Hhonors only gives points for bookings made on a Hilton-owned or affiliated site. Before you book, read the terms of service for your rewards program, or call ahead and ask the hotel.
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