Stephen Stein did not want to become an expert on the Booking.com refund process. He just needed the online agency to fix a mistake with a hotel booking — a mistake that cost him $2,246.
It was not his mistake, which made his case all the more agonizing. Booking.com had goofed and charged him even when it said the booking didn’t go through. He got a bill anyway, and Booking.com wouldn’t help him fix it.
If this story seems familiar, it should be. It has a villain everyone knows: a self-service booking site with a little technical problem. The site blames a third party, but the customer ends up paying for the problem. At least until someone calls the A-Team.
Stein’s problem will help us answer several questions:
- What happens when an online booking site glitches, and who is responsible for the problem?
- Can an online travel agency legally keep a refund that a hotel sends back to you?
- How do you avoid a booking mistake on Booking.com or any other travel site?
I can’t wait to get to the bottom of this case. Are you ready to check in?
What went wrong with this Booking.com hotel reservation?
Stein’s hotel fiasco started when he tried to book two rooms for six nights at The Churchill Hotel in Washington, D.C.
“I attempted to make a reservation through Booking.com,” he says. “But when I typed in my credit card information, I got a message that the rooms were no longer available.”
Believing his reservation hadn’t gone through, Stein looked elsewhere. He found rooms at The Churchill on Agoda.com, another online site, at the same price. He successfully made a reservation.
“Shortly after that, I received an email from Booking.com confirming my original reservation,” he says. “This was after I had made the reservation with Agoda for the same rooms at approximately the same price.”
Now, Stein had two prepaid reservations for the same hotel. Could he get this sorted out?
“They could not cancel the reservation”
The solution would have been simple in pre-pandemic days when most hotel reservations were fully refundable. But these days, more hotels are offering nonrefundable rates, and Stein had one.
“When I realized that Booking had made the reservation that they had previously declined, I immediately called the company,” he told me. “A representative said they could not cancel the reservation — that only the hotel could do that.”
Stein called the Churchill and spoke with a supervisor, who confirmed that he had four rooms under his name.
“I explained the problem to him, and he went ahead and canceled the rooms reserved by Booking.com,” he recalls. “The supervisor said that the hotel could not provide a refund because I had paid Booking.com and that I had to get back to them to process the refund.”
So Stein called Booking.com and asked a representative about the refund from The Churchill.
“A Booking.com representative indicated that the reservation had been made through them to a third party in Hong Kong,” he says. “I spoke with a supervisor at Booking.com who said he would contact the third party to cancel the reservation.”
Booking.com told him that “if the cancellation is accepted,” he would get a refund. Of course, it never did.
“This problem was caused by an error on the Booking website,” he added. “I am not convinced that I will be receiving a refund for this reservation and payment.”
That makes two of us.
Can an online travel agency keep your refund?
Wait! Can an online travel agency just keep your refund? In fact, it can. Here’s a case I mediated a few years back where the agent pocketed a $1,771 refund from Delta Air Lines.
The reason is simple and stupid. Your agreement is with the travel agency, which has its own refund policy. So, while you may be entitled to a refund from your airline or hotel, your travel agency can impose its own rules — and sometimes it does.
Similar situation here. Booking.com could keep the money from Stein because his agreement was technically with the company, not the hotel.
Also, very unfair. In the past, when I’ve asked a company about a refund like this, it has always reversed its decision. But will Booking.com do so this time? Before we get to the answer, let’s take a closer look at the Booking.com refund policy.
What is the current policy on rebooking and refunds at Booking.com?
Booking.com says it is not directly involved in the contract between you and the accommodation provider. Instead, it just provides a platform for you to search for, compare, and book accommodations.
If you see an offer labeled as a “partner offer” on Booking.com, it’s an offer made through a third party rather than directly.
You have to pay for your reservation when you make the booking. The third party may allow a “free” cancellation but will always indicates a cancellation deadline. Booking.com notes that you won’t be able to combine a third-party offer with any other promotions, incentives, or rewards.
Also, you won’t be able to leave a review or rating on the Booking.com website.
Booking.com says it’s impossible to make any changes to your reservation after completing the transaction. “This includes actions like changing the stay dates, guest name or email address,” it says.
However, if Booking.com cancels or declines your hotel reservation, it promises a full refund.
“If that’s the case, the partner notifies us,” it says. “Next, we refund you and cancel your booking.”
So where does that leave Stein? He tried to made a reservation at a hotel through Booking.com, which used a third party to complete the transaction. Booking.com said the reservation didn’t go through, but then made it anyway. Stein’s booking was in a gray area between the hotel, Booking.com and a third party called HONGKONG YONGZHENG TECHNOLOGY CO., LIMITED. (I’m not yelling — that’s how Booking.com described it.)
How long does it take to get a refund from Booking.com?
Booking.com says if your booking is canceled, it will refund you “immediately.”
What does “immediately” actually mean? “The processing time may take 7 to 10 days and depends on your bank,” the company says. “If you have questions, contact your bank directly.”
Translation: Booking.com initiates the refund as soon as the booking gets canceled. But it may take some time to go through your bank. Booking.com says it may take a week to 10 days, but I have seen banks take longer than that — more like two to three weeks.
It probably won’t surprise you that Booking.com doesn’t directly address a problem like Stein’s, which involved a reservation that didn’t go through and then did go through. There are no published rules or guarantees. It’s more a matter of Booking.com’s internal policy.
And that’s a little tricky.
Whose responsibility is this Booking.com disaster?
Booking.com’s efforts to push the responsibility for this transaction to the hotel or a third party based in China is laughable. Booking.com may have created a contract that allows it an escape clause because it’s just a platform, but that means nothing to consumers like Stein — or consumer advocates like me.
The company is responsible for this booking disaster, no question about it. It may be a platform, but it also has a contract with The Churchill and with Stein, and ultimately it processed this transaction even though it initially claimed the reservation didn’t go through.
Booking.com needs to make things right.
How do you avoid a booking mistake on Booking.com?
I can’t pass up this opportunity to review the most common online booking mistakes made by travelers.
Always read the fine print
It’s so easy to gloss over the fine print. But if you do, you’ll miss some important stuff — like the fact that the room is nonrefundable and that it’s one of those dreaded “partner” offers.
Don’t limit yourself to one booking site
If Stein had checked out the Churchill’s website, he would have found the same rate (the hotel price-matches), but it would have been cancellable 24 hours before your arrival. In other words, he would have never been charged. Always check the hotel website and book direct whenever possible.
Observe the one-hour rule
When something goes wrong with your online reservation — say, the system rejects your booking because there are no more rooms — wait at least an hour before making a reservation on another site. My advocacy team and I have had many cases like Stein’s, and none of them would have become a problem if the customer had just waited an hour.
How will this Booking.com refund case end?
Stein pressed his case, calling the company to get his money back. And while I can completely understand his reasons for calling — he wanted a quick resolution — he did not follow the Elliott Method.
Booking.com, however, did follow the method. It was kind enough to reply to his call with an email, which created a nice paper trail.
As discussed over the phone, I already contacted our relevant department who handle partner offer type of reservation.
Unfortunately, your booking is facilitated by a partner company and can’t be canceled or modified because it’s a nonrefundable rate.
You can find this info during the booking process and in your confirmation email but since you have told me that you were notified that the room you have booked is no longer available and confirmed by the property, we cannot confirm it from them so I raised it to our relevant department about this concern.
As soon as they confirm it from our partner, they will issue the refund from their end. You will still hear from us.
Whenever you need us, we’re always here.
And that’s when he turned to the A-Team, asking us if we could track down HONGKONG YONGZHENG TECHNOLOGY CO., LIMITED or Booking.com — or anyone who could help him get his $2,246 back.
This case should have been an easy fix
Stein could have appealed this case to one of the Booking.com executives we list on this site. But that’s not why this should have been an easy fix.
Read the Booking.com company contacts page carefully, and you’ll notice that Booking.com and Agoda.com, where Stein ended up booking his hotel room, are both owned by by the same company — Booking Holdings Inc. Stein never left the Booking ecosystem, remaining brand-loyal to the bitter end.
Someone at Booking.com should have figured this out and sent him a quick refund.
I’m not sure if Booking.com or the mysterious third party would have kept Stein’s money. Booking.com has something of a reputation for slow refunds, which didn’t get any better during the pandemic. Booking.com is also sometimes less than clear about its cancellation terms.
Keeping Stein’s money was not an option, at least not if I had anything to do with it.
Will Booking.com keep his $2,246?
Stein contacted my advocacy team through our site after his insurance broker, John Cook, recommended our advocacy services. I reviewed his case and quickly decided to ask Booking.com about this refund. My Booking.com contact got back to me almost immediately and promised to investigate.
A few days later, the $2,246 charge on Stein’s credit card disappeared.
“I’m sure your intervention was a key factor in Booking’s decision to rescind the charge,” he told me. “I’m thankful that my insurance broker recommended contacting you. I truly appreciate your help.”
Stephen, I have to commend you for being so persistent. Since you are staying at a hotel named for the famous British prime minister, I’m reminded of his trademark line, “We shall never surrender.”
You didn’t give up, and you got your money back. Well done!
About the art
This week our art team went with a Northern European theme. Since Booking.com is based in Amsterdam, they decided to draw their inspiration from Edvard Munch’s impressionistic style.