He noticed the fine print one moment too late

Luis Gonzalez of Miami is out $570. He wants us to help him get his money back. It all comes down to taking the time to read what is on your computer screen before you click the button that says “buy.”

Have you ever been in this situation? You’re using an online travel agency (OTA) to look for a hotel room, and you see the banner ad on the site that says you’ll save big if you book today. It can be so tempting to grab that discount. But before you do, you’d better read the fine print, something Gonzalez didn’t do.

In April, Gonzalez used Booking.com to reserve two rooms at the Sheraton Stockholm Hotel in Sweden for the night of June 20. However, it was not until he got the email confirmation that he actually read the terms. The confirmation said: “Cancellation policy: You will be charged the total price if you cancel your booking. This reservation cannot be cancelled free of charge.”

As soon as he read that, he tried unsuccessfully to cancel. He complained to Booking.com that he felt tricked by confusing website wording. In its response to him, the company pointed out that he had selected a nonrefundable rate and went on to say, “The policy details were stated at the time of booking and are included in your reservation confirmation for reference.”

Booking.com said it would ask the hotel to make an exception for him. However the follow-up note said the hotel had refused.

After getting nowhere with Booking.com, Gonzalez complained to Sheraton’s parent company, Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide. The answer was the same.

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Was he tricked? Was the website confusing? I looked at the Booking.com listing for that hotel for his June date, and found a room at the rate he was charged. In the next column to the right of the price, under the heading of “Options,” was a bullet that said “Nonrefundable.”

I then went directly to the hotel’s website and found the same room for the same date at the same price as the “discount” offered by Booking.com. The hotel website says that the room, at that rate, is “Nonrefundable, nonchangeable.” The site does show a refundable rate, but it’s higher.

We can’t know exactly what Gonzalez saw on his computer screen. However, it’s hard to imagine that the hotel and Booking.com changed the room terms in the one week that elapsed between when he made the reservation and I looked at those two websites.

When Gonzalez turned to us for help, our advocate asked to see his original confirmation, which included the cancellation policy mentioned above. Given that policy, plus what is clearly shown on the two websites, and the position taken by the hotel, there is nothing we can do to help him. We have to treat this as a “Case Dismissed.”

The first lesson here is one that is repeated frequently in the articles on this site: Read the terms and conditions before you buy. If the listing says it’s nonrefundable, you should believe that it means what it says. If you’re not sure, then contact the actual provider and ask. If you think you might change your mind, don’t make a nonrefundable reservation.

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The second lesson is that just because an OTA says it’s offering you a deal doesn’t mean it’s the only way to get that price. Often you can get that same price or a better deal directly from the provider. It’s worth checking and may give you one more opportunity to be sure you understand all of the terms of the deal before you buy.

Abe Wischnia

Abe started his working career as a television news reporter and newscaster before moving to corporate communications and investor relations. Now retired and having learned useful tips from Elliott.org, one of his volunteer activities is writing for us.

  • Lloyd Johnston

    I always book direct with the provider, that way there are fewer areas where things can go wrong, for any one part of the total trip, I know exactly who to call, no middlepersons to get in my way or opportunities for buck passing. I booked directly with “Hotel Property Location”, I am your circus, and I am your monkey, now fix the issue.

    Even with direct booking, I generally do not go with non-refundable for hotel rooms, with few exceptions. The main one being I’m going to be there for sure in less than a week, AND it’s a significant savings. If it’s $10 a night, forget it, I’ll go with the cancelable reservation. Stuff happens.

    Flights are a different story the refundable is just too much extra to be worth it. That’s where travel insurance comes in, because if I have to cancel, it will be for an insurable reason. For things like a cruise, where final payment was 90 days prior, I would be flying in early anyway, so would have time to get rebooked on a later flight if needed without any panic.

  • Chris_In_NC

    Just curious… (and perhaps the OP is the only one that can answer this), but why would you need to cancel simply because you receive the e-mail saying your reservation is non-refundable? After all, if you intended to stay there, why would the circumstances change simply because you got a e-mail saying the room is non-refundable?

    I personally, almost never book non-refundable hotel rooms. Too many things can go wrong, and often the non-refundable rate doesn’t offer enough of a significant savings to offset the risk.

    The OP would have a stronger case if he is asking for a credit or a change in dates. But, if he simply wants a refund, then he may be out of luck

  • MarkKelling

    I would guess (and it’s only a guess) that the OP was trying to lock in great rates for a trip but was not definite about his plans. Since most hotel reservations have historically been refundable, OP may have assumed that was true for this one.

  • greg watson

    Booking.com & my hotel. The same thing happened to me. I tried to cancel 2 hours after booking, because the location of the hotel, wasn’t accurately disclosed. Although my trip was about 8 months away, booking.com did nothing to assist me. Lesson Learned !

  • Annie M

    Excellent story. I see this all
    the time. But I am curious as to why the letter writer immediately wanted to cancel
    his reservation as soon as he got the confirmation. What was the point of making itbat all?

    Another person who didn’t read and doesn’t accept fault by trying to save a few bucks.

  • John Keahey

    I have the same question. I wish the advocate would have addressed it.

  • Alan Gore

    Don’t book nonrefundable rates at hotels. You won’t save that much under current conditions, and you’re only encouraging the poisonous spread of this kind of pricing to a largely uncontaminated line of business.

  • pauletteb

    I’ve used Booking.com a few times with excellent results, but I always double-check whether the reservation can be cancelled without penalty. I also check the hotel’s direct site; if the rate is the same or even a few dollars more, I go that route for the points.

  • pauletteb

    Booking.com doesn’t make the cancellation rules; the property does. From my experience, non-refundable vs. refundable is always clearly disclosed. Had you booked that rate directly with the property, the result would most likely have been the same.

  • greg watson

    Understood………………….but booking.com has made exceptions before, & definitely has some clout over the hotel………………………& 8 months away, there should have been no problem to change hotels with booking.com………….they would still get my business & the hotel would have more than enough time to fill the room. But, as I said, my fault, lesson learned.

  • Pegtoo

    Your two lessons are some of the many things I’ve learned from reading this site. And I have to admit, I’m glad you didn’t put effort into helping the OP get a refund. Sorry it’s not what he wanted, but the terms were there. Save your magical powers for those who are dealing with unfair or horrible treatment.

  • John McDonald

    We try to go skiing in Colorado every year. The non-refundable rate we pay for with a travel wholesaler for the accommodations includes free lift tickets. We can get the same rate by booking direct, which is fully refundable less a small fee, but includes no lift tickets. When day lift tickets are $150-$180 a day you’d have to be nuts to pay the refundable rate.

  • Sandra

    I have successfully used Booking.com for years, always choosing the “no cancellation fee; pay at the property” option. No problems. This past spring, however, I learned from a hotel that they must pay B.com a 20% commission on each room sold through the site. They are very willing to extend the same rate and include another 10% discount because they are still saving money. I feel a bit guilty (crazy I know; it’s a website not a person) to look at B.com’s offerings and then go directly to the hotel but I will do that for my next bookings. The hotels I’ve talked to assured me that there is always a generous cancellation policy AND you never pay ahead, just when you check out.

  • ChelseaGirl

    I didn’t get that either…booking and then immediately canceling doesn’t make sense to me.

  • Noah Kimmel

    exactly! That is also why they are less likely to offer a courtesy to OTA bookers and do things like a refund a few minutes after purchase. If you book direct, especially if you have a loyalty number, you are much more likely to get some goodwill help than an OTA that screams “I only care about price”. Plenty of hotel GM’s and sales managers will happily offer discounts for booking direct with the property or chain as the tiered comissioning based on source gives them more profit to extend pleasantries.

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