For just $89 a night, the all-suite hotel in Killeen, Texas, promised Steven Hoybook and his family “European-style luxury” — an offer that seemed too good to pass up.
But Hoybook wishes that he had. When he and his family arrived, they found the hotel’s windows and doors shuttered. “They were out of business,” says Hoybook, who lives in Minneapolis. He couldn’t reach Orbitz, the site through which he’d booked the room, so the family found accommodations at a nearby Marriott, paying $111 a night for a smaller room.
When Hoybook finally reached the online travel agency by phone the next day, a representative “seemed sympathetic, leading us to believe that they would reverse the charge for the closed hotel,” he recalls. But after months of back-and-forth, during which the Hoybooks formally disputed the credit card charge for their first hotel, Orbitz referred their bill to a collection agency.
The Hoybooks are hardly alone. Every day, travelers appear at the front door of a hotel that no longer exists, check in for a flight that was canceled long ago or for a tour that isn’t running. Someone forgot to tell them about it. Fortunately, you can take a few preventive steps to make sure that it doesn’t happen to you, and even if it does, the fix is usually easy.
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Step one: Work with an agent you trust, either on- or offline.
“If a traveler is working with a professional travel agent, he or she will never arrive at a destination — or embarkation point — only to find that the product doesn’t exist,” says Steve Loucks, a spokesman for Travel Leaders Group, a travel agency consortium. “That’s because the suppliers with whom we work are carefully vetted in advance, and they’re usually ones with which we’ve had established relationships for a considerable period of time.”
Online travel agencies such as Orbitz, Expedia and Travelocity also have safeguards in place to ensure that the products they represent exist. In Hoybook’s case, something “slipped through the cracks,” an Orbitz representative says. “And in the automated world we all live in, this got kicked to collections in error.”
Had Hoybook been able to reach someone at Orbitz on the evening of check-in, a representative would have promptly rebooked the family to a comparable hotel. But a customer can ensure that a hotel is open by calling it to confirm the reservation, which is always a good idea with a third-party booking, even when it’s a travel agent you personally know. Similarly, it’s a good idea to phone your airline or car rental company to confirm a reservation.
But what if you forget? David Eccleston, a retired IT worker from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., recently neglected to confirm his tour of Scottish castles and gardens. “It turns out that that particular tour had been canceled about two months before, and our agent did not inform us,” he says.
He complained to a manager at the tour company and expected to be given an insincere apology and an unusable voucher. But that’s not what happened. The owner offered Eccleston his car and driver, who took the couple on a VIP tour of Scotland’s castles.
A similar thing happened to Rita Whitt, a retired teacher from Bonney Lake, Wash. On a recent trip to Moscow, she’d paid a lot of money for a tour that included a performance of the famous Moscow Circus, but when she arrived at the pick-up area, “everything was shuttered tight.” So she improvised. She asked for the location of the circus and found that it was performing across town, in another part of Moscow.
“A local couple who spoke French, but not English, pushed me onto a city bus crammed with people going home from work,” she remembers. “They said something in Russian to the crowded masses, and about 30 minutes later, I was literally pushed off the bus, right in front of where the circus was being held.”
Sometimes improvising works, sometimes not. When Shaun Kavanaugh prepaid for a room at a Sleep Inn in New York recently, he showed up only to discover that the property hadn’t opened yet. Hotels routinely begin accepting reservations before they open in anticipation of their opening date. But when they miss their target opening date, as Kavanaugh’s hotel had, it can leave guests homeless.
Kavanaugh, who works for a theme park in Orlando, contacted the Sleep Inn’s corporate owner and asked it to find him a comparable hotel room. But it refused, agreeing only to pay the difference between any hotel room he found on his own and his original rate. “I ended up having to drive 45 minutes over to New Jersey,” he says.
Of course, you can take all the steps to make sure that the product you booked exists — work with a reliable travel agent, call to confirm, and ask for a real-time resolution — and still come up short. Which brings us back to Hoybook, the traveler who paid for a room at a hotel that had been closed.
Orbitz initially wouldn’t stop its collection efforts, so I contacted the online agency on Hoybook’s behalf. Separately, Hoybook also reported the matter to his state attorney general. Orbitz zeroed out his bill.