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.

Related story:   I canceled my hotel room but American Express refuses to refund my points

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.

Related story:   Here's why you shouldn't purchase two one-way tickets to save money

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. Read more of Abe's stories here.

%d bloggers like this:
Get smart. Sign up for the newsletter.