These cancellation horror stories show why you should think twice before booking through an OTA
Here at The Points Guy, we usually recommend that travelers book rooms and flights directly with hotels and airlines. You earn eligible points toward elite status, you often get the best prices, you get better seat and room assignments — and you have a lot more leverage in case of delays, cancellations and other issues.
Related coverage: How to cancel reservations booked through a travel agency
But sometimes it makes sense to book travel through an online travel agency (OTA) like Expedia or Booking.com. OTAs may offer better prices than direct bookings or, in the case of Hotels.com, it offers a great way to earn rewards on hotel stays across multiple brands. In other situations, booking travel through a credit card portal, such as the Chase Ultimate Rewards travel portal, requires you to work with the company's travel provider, which is Expedia if you're booking through Chase.
However, the coronavirus outbreak and subsequent airline route cancellations and country lockdowns have left many OTAs struggling to respond to affected customers.
Going through an OTA means you're booking travel through a middleman — and as the fallout from this health crisis has shown, involving a third party complicates the conversation when travel plans come undone.
TPG News Editor Clint Henderson recently had positive results from several major travel companies when he had to cancel an ill-fated trip to Tahiti. Henderson booked his flights and hotels directly through American Airlines, Marriott, Hilton and Airbnb, and reported that he was able to score full refunds (or point redeposits) within days of his cancellation requests. In stark comparison, canceling an Expedia booking for a flight within Tahiti was a bit of a disaster.
TPG readers have also expressed their frustrations trying to cancel travel plans booked through OTAs. BookIt.com customers seem to have been the most affected. As BookIt.com has "suspended normal operations," customers related horror stories of having to pay a second time for their hotel stays before being allowed to check out of their hotels.
Other travelers have struggled to get refunds from BookIt.com. TPG Lounge member Carol Curtin reported that she had to work with her bank in order to get her money back.
"BookIt.com canceled everything and also kept my money," said Shelli Hershey, one of half a dozen TPG Lounge members who had the same tale to tell.
"I lost $6000," Anne Damone said. "BookIt.com left me stranded in Mexico and told me to contact my credit card to get my money back, but [my credit card issuer] says that because I paid in November, I can’t contest the charges now!"
Related: Here's what to do if coronavirus cancellations impact your travel booked through an online travel agency
Not every OTA has disappeared overnight like BookIt.com, but that doesn't mean customers have had easy experiences getting their money back from other third-party travel providers.
Milagros Figueroa-Tetuan told the TPG Lounge that she had spent a total of six hours on the phone with Travelocity because multiple phone calls kept getting dropped. When she finally spoke to a live person, all the agent could tell her was that she had to call the airline directly. So she did: "More than three hours with the airline on hold and nobody picks up," Figueroa-Tetuan lamented more than a week ago.
"Booked [a] hotel in Prague for March 26 through March 31 through Agoda," Rob Crofts told the TPG Facebook group. "It’s past cancellation period, and so far [Agoda is] not doing any refunds."
Blake and Amanda DiCioccio had to cancel flights to Chicago, which had been booked via Expedia through the Chase travel portal. "[A representative] called me back after a five-hour wait (at 4 a.m.), and I was able to get a United Airlines credit for my canceled tickets to Chicago," the DiCioccios told TPG. "Not ideal, but reasonable, considering the volume of calls."
Not every tale is a horror story, however. A number of travelers told TPG that they did, in fact, receive quick or gracious resolutions for their issues.
"I made a nonrefundable reservation in NYC through Booking.com, and they were able to refund me the full amount when I needed to cancel," Levi Brown told the TPG Lounge. Brown explained that Booking.com offers two cancellation options: The first is "just 'regular' cancel," Brown said. With the second option, the OTA reaches out to the hotel to ask what can be done. Brown chose Option 1, and reported that two days later, he received a message from the hotel, which issued him a full refund. "Super simple," he said.
Katy Stainton had an even easier experience canceling two different hotel reservations booked through Hotels.com. "Thankfully, they were both refundable rates, so I just went on the app and canceled," she shared in the TPG Lounge. "Took all of one minute. Easy peasy."
It can be different with nonrefundable rates. They exist for a reason: You earn a discount in exchange for the gamble that your trip will actually take place. A full refund is a gesture of goodwill on the part of the company — not an expected outcome. TPG Lounge member Jeff Boucher shared his satisfaction with Expedia for the easy cancellation of a nonrefundable hotel room in Manila, Philippines, which is currently on lockdown.
"I'd booked a nonrefundable room through Expedia," Boucher told the Lounge. "[Expedia] had a "COVID-19" cancellation button on its site, and I was able to easily get a 65% refund. Seems pretty fair to me, and the process took less than a minute and was done entirely online. I do most of my significant travel through Expedia and have had a mix of experiences, but this was fairly favorable in the days of three-hour hold times."
And Kate Everingham had a "super experience" with Booking.com, she said. "Two prepaid hotels. No questions and a full refund. Confirmed by email." She had a similarly positive experience with Rentalcars.com, which is owned by Booking.com: "Had to answer a few questions but my nonrefundable prepaid booking was also refunded (and Amex gave back my rental insurance premium unasked)."
As with many travel companies these days, customer service responses from OTAs can be predictably slow, a number of TPG readers reported. They have adjusted their expectations accordingly. "Emailed Expedia a week ago regarding upcoming flights two months from now," Theo Chen told the Lounge, adding that he received an automated response stating that the company would get back to him within five days. "I'm sure they're slammed, so I'll wait a while before following up."
At the end of the day, there will times when it is wise or necessary to book with an online travel agency. But as you weigh the value of an OTA deal, don't forget:
- You shouldn't book the trip if you aren't willing to lose your entire nonrefundable payment
- There will be a lot more red tape if you need to make any itinerary changes
- Always book with a credit card that offers good trip protection insurance.