The truth about third-party booking “scams”? Maybe hotels can’t handle the truth

I don’t know anyone who’s been scammed by a third-party hotel site. But I should have known better than to admit it — and in the Washington Post, no less.

No surprise, then, that I heard from Howard Schulman. His story, which I’ll get to in just a second, says a lot more than anyone realizes about the problems facing hotel guests. And in this case, the context is even more significant.

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First, though, a few details: In my story, I reported that the hotel industry is pushing a bill that would mandate more disclosure when you book through a third-party site. Disclosure is good, but as I noted, hotel guests have more pressing issues, such as price transparency and mandatory resort fees.

OK, and let’s just get this out of the way. Because I know you’re waiting for it.

Pshaw, say hotels. While the industry doesn’t deny that guests are concerned about other things, they claim many guests have been suckered by these shady companies, which mimic brand-name travel sites. Although they have research that supposedly proves it, I mentioned that neither I nor any of the consumer advocates I know had ever heard from anyone who’d been scammed by one of these questionable sites.

And that’s where Schulman comes in.

29 thoughts on “The truth about third-party booking “scams”? Maybe hotels can’t handle the truth

  1. not just hotels – people think they are dealing with the tour operator or cruise line, and then find out it is not so — I have no problem with it being CLEARLY labeled as a 3rd party site, and then you can decide to use them or not

    1. If the objective is transparency, why not require all mandatory fees to be included in the advertised rates, including on the 1st party site?

          1. I don’t know the answers to those questions, but being for (or neutral) on this bill does not imply one is against some future (but currently non-existent) bill meant to cover an entirely different issue.

          2. It’s not “currently non-existent!” A bill exists — as Chris previously explained in the linked piece [The Truth in Hotel Advertising Act] — which would explicitly codify the determination the FTC has sought — that advertising and selling reservations without including all mandatory fees is an unfair and deceptive trade practice.

          3. Yes, technically it exists, but it was referred to Senate committee in February with no action taken (not even a hearing) since, has attracted all of two other co-sponsors (both Democrats in a GOP-controlled Senate), and has never been introduced to the House, so it’s safe to say it has approx. zero chance of passing before the bill expires a couple weeks from now at the end of the session.

            It “exists” in the sense that any congress-critter can introduce any bill at any time, but apparently it was Dead on Arrival (it didn’t even attract the support of the other nine Democratic members of the committee), so it was nothing more than a PR move to begin with.

          4. The hotel industry lobby’s bill was also referred to Senate committee with no action taken (not even a hearing) so far… Yet the lobby is celebrating this as more than a PR move.

            If the goal of their bill is, as stated, to “protect [consumers] from deceptive online booking practices”, then why not support the other bill?

            On the facts, the other bill was introduced by a member of the committee and co-sponsored by 3 other [Democratic] Senators so far. The hotel industry lobby’s bill has only 2 Senate co-sponsors so far [also Democrats]. It does have more co-sponsors in the House.

          5. The bill on fees is not getting any love in the House or from lobbyists.

            Linda has complained a few times in the past in this space that we don’t need more regulations and that customers are at fault for not reading all the fine print or using a travel agent. So I was surprised to see her expressing support for this particular regulation and I was trying to understand why the same reasoning wouldn’t extend more broadly.

          6. Because there are far more properties then there are airlines. The category of airlines is much smaller and much more well known than hotel properties and booking services.

    2. Aren’t TA’s then or OTA’s by definition then third party sites if they do indeed have a site? I don’t know if operating a web portal POS is something you do.

  2. Why is this even a hotel industry situation? Schulman is the one that made a reservation on a site, not the hotel industry forcing him to do so. Always read the registry for the site that you are trying to get to, as scammers will make their registry look as close to the originals as possible. As I enter into my 50th year of this travel industry, I see more and more people getting scammed because they are trying to beat a system. I want the lowest price as does everybody that I come in contact with. We are adults, we have brains, but many of us have no idea of what is happening in travel. Is this a good deal? Look at Las Vegas, Florida, Hawaii, and many other areas and the “resort fees”. Oops, forgot those when calculating a cost. Spirit and Allegiant adding 100’s in fees for a couple. Oops, missed again. He may as well have gone to and would at least have known to be more careful because he knows he is on a weird site.. I do hope that he loses his case with the credit card, he made the reservation and he had to have acknowledged “I agree” at least once. If you do not have time to pay attention to what you are doing, then you deserve what you got. He was not scammed, but he may be trying to scam the credit card company.

      1. This particular case highlighted here is simply the OP having buyer’s remorse. He paid a total rate – they didn’t add on some sort of random fee later. The price he was quoted was the price he paid. He found out later he could have booked the room at a cheaper rate. I agree he should lose a credit card dispute (and he will lose). We all agree that resort fees are ridiculous. In this case though, the OP wasn’t scammed. He made a reservation and later learned he could have made it for less. It’s so very easy to compare prices, that’s on him. Again, we all agree resort fees complicate comparing rates. But that’s not what happened to this OP.

        1. How do you know this?

          At least today, through their front door, Travelscape offers “Pay Now” or “Pay at Hotel”, and it’s the same rate either way. So where would the separate $39.99 fee come from?

          1. I may be wrong. That’s how I understood it. I despise resort fees. Yet lumping them into the same category as shady OTAs isn’t correct either. The hotel doesn’t gain anything when an OTA charges a fee like this. The nature of the industry pretty much demands their inventory be available on OTAs. The large OTAs license their platform to third party companies, many that are shady and scummy (I’m sure about this, I know a personal example.) The hotel can’t really control this, and I wouldn’t want the wrong business being labeled as a scam or accuse them of untoward behavior.

          2. I was just asking where Travelscape’s fee is disclosed today, and if you can’t find it disclosed anywhere, then why you would assume this is a case of “buyer’s remorse?”

            Re: resort fees, why would it be okay for one type of business to impose hidden mandatory fees but not another? Hotels already pay commissions to authorized agents.

            The hotel industry lobby apparently wants you to believe that third party sites which do not “disclose [..] continuously [..] throughout the transaction process [..] that [they are] not affiliated with the person who (1) owns the hotel or (2) provides the hotel services or accomodations” are a …”scam.” After all their proposed bill is called the “Stop Online Booking Scams Act.”

      2. They Do not! My computer will advise me as such because I go the step further and know to look for hidden fees. Travel today is not as easy as it was 30 years ago or even 10 years ago. Using a computer to save money leads to lack of attention. Look how quickly I did this. Look how much extra money I just spent. Look for an excuse not to pay it. Expedia, Travelocity, Orbitz, etc are “TO BIG TO FAIL”! I think that I have heard that line before, as we all got ripped off.

        1. If “they do not,” then who is scamming who?

          If the merchant can’t bother to disclose their fees, how does one “pay attention” to that which is purposely not disclosed? Your wrath is completely mis-directed and the customer ought to win their credit card dispute in that case.

  3. “But I received exactly one grievance as a result of the column, and it was from someone whose problem wouldn’t have been addressed by the legislation.”

    Why would the law not have addressed the problem?

    In any case, I agree it’s not a major problem that needs solving, but I don’t see the harm in the law either. As you said, more disclosure is a good thing.

    1. I really don’t see how this OP was “scammed”. He paid the rate he was quoted. He later learned other sites, including directly through the property, offered cheaper rates. That’s not a scam, that’s making a purchase without doing any research. It’s so ridiculously easy to compare rates when there’s no junk fees charged by the hotel/airline/etc.

  4. Third party? I wouldn’t exactly call second party middlemen, Priceline, Expedia, etc ethical either – given all the horror stories written about here. Just book DIRECTLY with hotels and airlines, you know who you are dealing with.

  5. That linked 1999 article was just a great throwback. Reading about the dotcom bubble before it burst somehow makes me nostalgic.

  6. But the problem is look-alike sites, where the consumer assumes he/she is booking directly, but is actually on a third-party site.

  7. I don’t understand how someone could end up at some third party site when it’s so easy to download major apps for properties like and Even then wouldn’t it just be easier to Google the property and then call them directly? What am I missing?

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