Using third-party travel sites wisely

Expedia experience provides a cautionary tale 

Like many travelers, I use sites like Expedia, TripAdvisor, and others as handy tools to see what flights, hotels and other facilities are available on certain dates, then book directly with the airline or hotel. Recently, however, I booked a hotel directly through Expedia. It did not end well.

In May, I booked a room in Albany, Ore., for a wedding we would be attending over the Labor Day weekend. The confirmation for the prepaid room I received from Expedia said, “Your reservation is booked. No need to call us to reconfirm this reservation.” I took them at their word.

Screen shot of my 'confirmation' notice
On Saturday of Labor Day weekend, at the end of a four-and-a-half hour drive from Seattle, we pulled up to the Comfort Suites and I went to the lobby to check in. That’s when I heard the five words no traveler wants to hear: “We don’t have your reservation.”

Armed as always with support documents, I presented my confirmation. Unfortunately, it did not contain anything the hotel recognized as a confirmation code or similar number; all it contained was the Expedia itinerary number.

“You should call Expedia,” the clerk suggested. I would eventually, but my first priority – it being Labor Day weekend – was securing a room, so I asked if they had any available. “We have two,” the clerk replied. We took one, which was offered at a rate that was within $10 of the rate we got through Expedia. But, in this case, we actually got a room.

After settling in to our king suite, I tried to contact Expedia to find out exactly what had transpired. Note the use of the word “tried.” When I pressed “0” to speak to a live agent, I was told my approximate wait time would be 10 hours, 53 minutes. I am neither kidding nor exaggerating; nearly 11 hours! The call would wait for another time.

I then called the two credit card companies I use regularly and neither could find a charge in the amount of the Expedia reservation, so it appeared I had not been charged; a glimmer of good news.

Later that evening, I received an email from Expedia asking me to rate my check-in experience. You can imagine that my responses were not favorable. But their follow-up email meant that I was indeed in their system somewhere.

Returning home the following day, I once again called Expedia and reached an agent quickly. She too confirmed that I was in their system, that I had not been charged and, after putting me on hold to call the hotel, confirmed that I was not in their system. Great. We’d established that the day before.

“What happened?” I asked.

The agent couldn’t (or wouldn’t) tell me precisely where things went south, but she apologized for the inconvenience and offered me a $25 credit toward a future purchase. That more than offset the few additional dollars I had to spend on the room as well as the glass(es) of wine I had to calm down afterward, but that’s about it.

Let me be clear: I cannot say with any certainty that the fault lies with Expedia. It could also be a glitch with Choice Hotels corporate or the particular Comfort Suites at which we had the reservation. And though I have reached out to Expedia’s media relations department and will share whatever response I receive, it may be that I will never really know what happened.

But I do know this: had the hotel been fully booked, we’d have been up a creek for a couple of reasons: the 11-hour delay to reach Expedia would have meant any help Expedia might have been able to offer would have come far too late. In addition, guests who book through third-party sites do not enjoy the same protections as those who book directly with a hotel or hotel chain.

Particularly during busy times like three-day holiday weekends, hotels tend to overbook. They play the numbers game very well and usually estimate pretty accurately how many no-shows they will get. Unfortunately, they sometimes guess incorrectly and have more people show up than they have rooms available.

In such cases, the hotel has the obligation to find and provide similar or better accommodations nearby. That is called “walking” the guest, and the original hotel will pick up the cost of the room night. Often, though not always, the guest will also receive some other form of consideration such as an upgraded room, free drinks, dinner or breakfast, hotel points or some other perk.

Not so when you use Expedia or virtually any other third-party booking site. In fact, here is some language directly from Expedia’s terms and conditions:

The Expedia Companies and the Expedia Partners have no liability and will make no refund in the event of any delay, cancellation, overbooking, strike, force majeure or other causes beyond their direct control, and they have no responsibility for any additional expenses, omissions, delays, re-routing or acts of any government or authority.

Expedia Companies and Expedia Affiliates do not guarantee the accuracy of, and disclaim all liability for any errors or other inaccuracies relating to the information and description of the hotel, air, cruise, car and other travel products and services displayed on this Website (including, without limitation, the pricing, photographs, list of hotel amenities, general product descriptions, etc.).

Any and all Claims will be resolved by binding arbitration, rather than in court…There is no judge or jury in arbitration, and court review of an arbitration award is limited.

Going forward, I will do what I have done so many times previously: book directly with the hotel or airline website to ensure I have protections in place. In addition, being a member of a hotel’s loyalty program will show the hotel that you are, more or less, a regular guest and they may be more inclined to show you a little extra love if things go awry.

If you find a price on a third-party service that is substantially better than the hotel’s website (which is becoming ever more rare), call the hotel directly and tell them, “I see a King room at your hotel on at $X. Can you match that rate?” Usually, they will because, when a guest books directly with them, it saves the commission they would otherwise pay to the third-party site. As a result, they might even shave a few dollars off the third-party rate because they will still be money ahead.

Finally, if you are devoted to your favorite third-party site, call the airline or property about 48 hours after you’ve booked to make sure they have received the information. It means an extra step but could save you lots of grief down the road.

Visit my main page at for more news, reviews, and personal observations on the world of upmarket travel.