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Online Travel Agents are an integral part of many people's travels. Used frequently by many to book their accommodation, for both business and leisure, these websites are a convenient method of doing what was once only possible by phone. The great majority of experiences using these valuable tools are hassle free, but what if something was to go wrong? Many a story has been told, of travel nightmares, stemming from booking mistakes and related issues. The following is the next chapter from the Online Travel Agency article, focussing on prevalent and common issues, faced by unfortunate travellers who have booked via an Online Travel Agent.
1. Cancellation and Changes
These two are the most common issues, experienced by those using Online Travel Agents. The most unfortunate aspect of this, is that the overwhelming number of these issues, are due to the consumer not reading the Terms & Conditions. Some are very openly and clearly stated, others are a little ambiguous, a few are outright complicated and confusing. The general guidelines when determining conditions;
A) Cancellation policies exist for both the agent and the hotel, and can be independent of each other. A common misconception is when a consumer sees that the website offers "No Cancellation Fees", they believe this also applies to the hotel - which simply isn't the case. Always check the Terms & Condition for both before proceeding with a reservation.
B) Always take cancellation policies verbatim. Should an agent state a specific cancellation period, this cancellation date and time is based on your location. Should a hotel state a specific cancellation date and time, this is based on their location, so be sure to take that into consideration. Most importantly if a cancellation for example states 6PM, it is 6PM, not five minutes after.
C) Generally, it is always best to assume that cancellation policies are absolute and not negotiable.
D) Should you wish to cancel a reservation within the specified time frame, it is always best practice to cancel your reservation, with both the online travel agent and the hotel reservations department by email. Be absolutely sure that you receive a written confirmation of your cancellation notice. One aspect which isn't commonly known, is that hotel computer systems generate a Cancellation Number (just like a confirmation number), and the guest is entitled to ask for that number.
E) Although it maybe be obvious, it must be stated that should you simply not turn up for a reservation, any number of penalties can be applied. This can range from a one night No Show fee, to the entire amount of your reservation - dependent on the hotels' own cancellation policy.
F) As it the case with cancellations, reservation changes are dependent on both the Terms & Conditions of the agent, as well as the hotel. Should the changes be permitted, ensure a follow up email is sent to the hotel directly for confirmation. This is especially prevalent if the request is made close to your arrival date. Some hotel groups use a centralized reservation department located offsite, who may deal with numerous properties in one city/region. When this is the case, there are inevitable delays in your request being passed onto the appropriate property, which may affect how quickly your request is processed. This also applies for any 'special' requests.
2. Refunds and related processes.
Whilst it is most unfortunate, the reality is that in this day and age, a refund is often needed for various reasons. Should for any reason you require a refund, be sure it is permissible under the Terms & Conditions for both the agency and the hotel. Then proceed systematically.
A) Ensure your refund request is in writing to the agent, as well as the hotel and detail specifics. This commences an electronic paper trail, which is to your benefit, should it ever proceed to a legal matter. It is important you understand from whom the refund is due. A sure indicator of who is holding your funds, is the company listed on your credit card statement.
B) The procedures involved in the processing of a refund are complicated and lengthy. There are corporate and financial governance that dictate certain paperwork and investigation be completed, prior to the refund being processed. This typically includes the investigation as to why a refund is needed, a confirmation of agreement by the hotel and their accounts department, the return correspondence of the aforementioned requests, the physical processing of the refund transaction and the delay with the respective financial institutions. This does not even take into consideration time differences, office hours or public holidays in the location of the company who is to process your refund. A typical refund can take anywhere between 48hrs, all the way up to 6 weeks, depending on the above variables.
C) The method, in which you receive your refund, is not negotiable regardless of how you paid. In majority of the cases, the refund will only be processed back to the credit card you nominated and used for your reservation. No refund will be processed to a third party account for security reasons, although smaller independent hotels may make exceptions, but this is extremely rare.
D) Maintain consistent contact with the hotel and agent throughout the process, however no matter how frustrating, it is a pointless exercise in letting out your dissatisfaction to a customer service person during this process. They are almost never the person involved in these procedures and it certainly does not speed up the refund.
E) Should you find that you have been advised that a refund has been processed, you may request a transaction authorisation number (TRN), which is always displayed on the merchant terminal receipt.
F) Should your refund be due to an overcharge or a disputed charge, contact the hotel, the agent, as well as your financial institution. By contacting all three, it will increase your chances of the process being handled much quicker by one party or another.
3. Hotel overbooking and entitlements.
Hotel overbookings don't happen very often, but there is always a chance. Sometimes it is a clerical error, other times it is deliberate. It will come as a surprise to many, but hotel over bookings are an encouraged practice in many hotels to ensure maximum occupancy and revenue. To give you an idea of exactly how it happens - a typical 500 room hotel in a given major city, can experience an average of anywhere between 100~250 No Shows per calendar year. This does not take into consideration any last minute changes or cancellations, and these are just the number of No Show reservations. It may not sound like many over the course of a year - but that is on the assumption that these reservations are all for one night each. What if they were for four nights each? Even at a mere $100 per night, that would equate to a revenue loss of $100,000. Then add to those numbers, the actual cancellations. Seeing such figures quickly brings to clarity exactly why hotels try to overbook. Again in a typical 500 room hotel, what they try and achieve is what is known as a minus 3 to a minus 5, and sometimes much higher. The minus number being the actual number of rooms available for any given night, to compensate for last minute cancellations and No Shows. However, every now and then, the hotel gets caught out and every reservation turns up. This is how hotel overbookings can occur. Should you be in such an unfortunate situation, you are entitled to the following;
A) An alternate accommodation of the same rating and category or higher, in the same listed location.
B) The transfer to your alternate accommodation must be provided by the original property, at their cost.
C) Any payments already made must be transferable to your alternate property at the time and expense of the original property immediately. Should the original property ask you to pay the alternate property, and then they'll process you a refund, it is illegal. If the original property insists that they cannot, then demand they fax or email a chargeback authority to your alternate property. This will avoid you having to pay a second time and then have to follow up a refund later.
D) Any original inclusions such as breakfast, free Internet, tour transfers, must be honoured at your alternate property, at the expense of the original property.
E) Should your original property have facilities such as gym, health spa, ocean view etc, and the alternate property does not, you are entitled to pro rata compensation for each night you are at the alternate accommodation.
F) It isn't an ideal situation, but always best to accept the situation diplomatically and see the alternative first. There are occasions where the alternative is vastly better than your original property.
G) Ensure you get details of the duty management of your original hotel for follow up and reference.
H) This situation has absolutely nothing to do with your agent, and is entirely the fault of the hotel. So be sure any follow up complaints are directed at the appropriate persons.
4. Determining cause and responsibility.
All too often the agent is blamed for mishaps, which occur during ones travels, but unfortunately it can be misdirected. Many situations occur as a result if the hotel, tour operator or an external contractor. There are issues, which can be followed up on the spot, whilst others may require follow up after you return home. The important factor is in your ability to obtain and record details. Names, date and time, person you dealt with, all can assist you with problems. Trying to list the potential cause and responsibility is far too great but here are a few common ones;
A) Arrived at hotel, no reservation - can be the fault of either the travel agent or the hotel.
B) Arrived at hotel, no rooms left - entirely the fault of the hotel.
C) Did not pre-pay and the rate is higher on arrival - can be the fault of either agent or consumer. Details of payment in local currency and taxes.
D) Consumer double charged - can be the fault of the hotel or agent. Check to make sure first charge is not a pre-auth, contact bank immediately.
E) Consumer incorrectly charged - can be the fault of the hotel or agent.
F) Wrong room type - almost always consumer error or fault of the hotel.
G) Did not get request - nobody's fault. Requests are just that - a request. Nothing in your purchase is guaranteed unless it's stated.
There are endless others which really must be evaluated on each case, as is with those listed above. They are purely examples to show how blame can be placed in many different directions, which again stresses the importance of obtaining details.
5. Further advice for resolution.
The best resolution is the one that is immediate and on the spot, and sometimes it maybe a case of give and take. It's never a good idea to assume the person you are dealing with is the person responsible, and whilst this may seem obvious, incidents suggest this message is often not understood. A delayed flight is not the fault of the hotel, as is a dirty room isn't the fault of the agent. In the most unfortunate scenario whereby all attempts at resolution is exhausted, your financial institution is your best friend. Most credit card providers are very protective of their clients purchase and are very well equipped to handle complaints. Should it require further action than that of your financial institution, the next step would be to contact your local consumer authorities and relevant travel related governing bodies.
Safe and happy travels!