My online travel agency never sent me a confirmation. Do I still have to pay?

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By Christopher Elliott

If an online travel agency never sends you a confirmation, do you still have to pay?

That’s what Geraldine Martin wants to know after she failed to receive a confirmation for the vacation rental she was trying to book in Andalusia, Spain. But later — much later — Booking.com charged her $1,560 for the apartment. 

Can it do that?

In discovering the answer, we’ll also find the answers to these questions:

  • Do online travel agencies send confirmations when you book?
  • Are travel sites required to send you a written confirmation?
  • Can you get a refund if you didn’t get a confirmation for a reservation?

“You must press ‘finish’ to complete the booking”

Martin was looking for a good deal on a vacation rental in Spain when she stumbled upon a rental in Benalmádena, an area known for its beaches, castles, and great oranges. And honestly, if you’ve never tried the oranges from Andalusia, you have to. 

The apartment, which she found on Booking.com, cost $1,560 for nine nights — a real bargain. When she went to book the property, she got to the final screen, which said, “You must press ‘finish’ to complete the booking.”

So she did.

And then — nothing.

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Martin went back to try to book the apartment again, but this time it said it was unavailable.

“I emailed Booking.com straight away,” she said. “But I never heard back from them.”

Martin assumed that because she never received a confirmation and because Booking.com never responded to her query, that she hadn’t made a successful booking.

But no.

A few months later, Booking.com charged her credit card $1,560.

Is that allowed? Let’s find out.

Do online travel agencies send confirmations when you book?

A reputable online travel agency will always send a confirmation when you book through it. These confirmations are automatically generated by the system and will usually contain the following information:

  • Your full name.
  • The amount charged.
  • The date of your travel.
  • Your reservation number.
  • A way to contact the online agency or the supplier if you need to.

If it is not an official reservation, then it will clearly state on the confirmation that you still need to pay, plus any restrictions. For example, Booking.com has a “pay at property” option which allows you to pay after your stay. 

If the email you receive from your online travel agency doesn’t have this information — or if you don’t receive an email at all — then you’re in trouble.

Do not — repeat, do not — assume that a lack of a confirmation means your reservation didn’t go through. You’ll see why in a minute.

Are travel sites required to send you a written confirmation?

As you might have guessed by now, online travel agencies are usually under no legal obligation to send you a written confirmation. 

For example, in the United States there are no federal laws that require businesses to issue a receipt. Nor are there in Ireland, where Martin is based. In Australia, businesses must give you a receipt for anything that costs over $75, or on request in the case of less expensive items. 

Still, the emails are sent to customers as a courtesy and because it makes sense. Imagine how confused customers would be if they bought something online and then didn’t get a receipt. That is especially true for travel itineraries, which can get quite complicated.

It’s also a common courtesy. Sometimes, a travel business won’t charge you until months after you’ve made your reservation. The charge wouldn’t show up on your credit card immediately. So the only way to know that a reservation has been made is if you have a written confirmation.

Can you get a refund if you didn’t get a confirmation for a reservation?

If you never get a confirmation — but you get a charge on your credit card — can you get a refund?

Maybe.

Online travel agencies can tell if you’ve opened the email they sent you. And they definitely know if the email bounced and you never got it. So the online agency knows when something has gone wrong — or it should know. When it does, the company should reach out to verify that you meant to make a purchase and to find a way of sending you the information.

So if you don’t receive a confirmation from your online travel agency, you might be able to negotiate a credit, and maybe even a refund. It depends on your circumstances. (Related: Stupid travel mistakes and how to avoid them.)

But that doesn’t mean you’re off the hook. If you make a reservation, or think you made a reservation, you need to do your due diligence when you don’t receive an email.

  • Whitelist the recipient. Confirm that emails from this recipient are allowed and will not end up in your spam folder. 
  • Make sure you typed the your email address in correctly. It’s easy to miss a period or misspell an address.
  • Check your spam folder. Sometimes, emails go there, perhaps never to be seen by anyone.

Put differently, it’s a shared responsibility. The company should send it — but you should make every effort to receive it, too.

And that brings us back to Martin’s case. She made two mistakes that made this case almost impossible to solve. I said almost.

“The customer unfortunately entered a slightly incorrect email address”

Martin contacted our advocacy team. I asked Booking.com about Martin’s case, and it agreed to review her case.

Its records show that she successfully booked the vacation rental in Spain. But when it tried to send her a confirmation, it couldn’t. 

“The customer unfortunately entered a slightly incorrect email address,” a Booking.com representative told me. “That’s why they did not receive the confirmation email of their reservation.” (Related: Aspire to travel the world? Read this before you go.)

Remember what I said before, though. It’s a shared responsibility. Booking.com should have seen the bounce and reached out to Martin, but it didn’t. (Related: Yes, your online travel agency sees E-V-E-R-Y-T-H-I-N-G.)

According to Booking.com, Martin made a successful reservation and was correctly charged. But it didn’t bother to verify if she had received a confirmation and, according to Martin, never confirmed the reservation — even on its site. 

(By the way, if you ever run into trouble with Booking.com, you can check out our Booking.com executive contacts.)

Booking.com says it agreed to refund the $1,560, but then it said Martin made another mistake: She disputed the charges on her credit card. (Here’s our guide to everything you need to know before taking a trip.)

A credit card dispute is for items ordered but never received, which I suppose this was. But in Booking.com’s view, she had reserved the rental and could have used it. That also vastly complicated its efforts to refund her.

Martin’s bank sided with her, and Booking.com says she received a full refund.

“We understand that mistakes can happen, so we will be providing Ms. Martin with $100 in wallet credits for her to put towards a future trip,” Booking.com added.

Lesson learned: Don’t forget to do this when you book online

Martin’s story could have ended much worse — with her losing the entire $1,560. But her experience is a teachable moment for the rest of us.

  • Always — always — double-check all your personal information, including your email address when you make a reservation.
  • Take a screen shot of your confirmation and make a printout of it. At the very least, write down your confirmation number.
  • Be careful when pushing buttons. For example, the “book” button is usually an irreversible step. Once you push it, you have a confirmed reservation. 
  • And here’s another button you should be careful about pushing: the one marked “spam.” If your online agency starts harassing you with solicitations, use the “unsubscribe” button. Otherwise, it will send all the company’s email to spam. And you could end up in a situation like Martin’s.

Of course, the best way to avoid this nonsense is to work with a human travel advisor. A real person is unlikely to to make these types of mistakes.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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