What to do if your hotel doesn’t exist

Darren Bradley/Shutterstock
Darren Bradley/Shutterstock
For just $89 a night, the all-suite hotel in Killeen, Tex., promised Steven Hoybook and his family “European-style luxury” – an offer that seemed too good to pass up.

But Hoybook wishes that he had. When he and his family arrived, they found the hotel’s windows and doors shuttered. “They were out of business,” says Hoybook, who lives in Minneapolis. He couldn’t reach Orbitz, the site through which he’d booked the room, so the family found accommodations at a nearby Marriott, paying $111 a night for a smaller room.

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When Hoybook finally reached the online travel agency by phone the next day, a representative “seemed sympathetic, leading us to believe that they would reverse the charge for the closed hotel,” he recalls. But after months of back-and-forth, during which the Hoybooks formally disputed the credit card charge for their first hotel, Orbitz referred their bill to a collection agency.

The Hoybooks are hardly alone. Every day, travelers appear at the front door of a hotel that no longer exists, check in for a flight that was canceled long ago or for a tour that isn’t running. Someone forgot to tell them about it. Fortunately, you can take a few preventive steps to make sure that it doesn’t happen to you, and even if it does, the fix is usually easy.

Step one: Work with an agent you trust, either on- or offline.

“If a traveler is working with a professional travel agent, he or she will never arrive at a destination – or embarkation point – only to find that the product doesn’t exist,” says Steve Loucks, a spokesman for Travel Leaders Group, a travel agency consortium. “That’s because the suppliers with whom we work are carefully vetted in advance, and they’re usually ones with which we’ve had established relationships for a considerable period of time.”

Online travel agencies such as Orbitz, Expedia and Travelocity also have safeguards in place to ensure that the products they represent exist. In Hoybook’s case, something “slipped through the cracks,” an Orbitz representative says. “And in the automated world we all live in, this got kicked to collections in error.”

Had Hoybook been able to reach someone at Orbitz on the evening of check-in, a representative would have promptly rebooked the family to a comparable hotel. But a customer can ensure that a hotel is open by calling it to confirm the reservation, which is always a good idea with a third-party booking, even when it’s a travel agent you personally know. Similarly, it’s a good idea to phone your airline or car rental company to confirm a reservation.

But what if you forget? David Eccleston, a retired IT worker from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., recently neglected to confirm his tour of Scottish castles and gardens. “It turns out that that particular tour had been canceled about two months before, and our agent did not inform us,” he says.

He complained to a manager at the tour company and expected to be given an insincere apology and an unusable voucher. But that’s not what happened. The owner offered Eccleston his car and driver, who took the couple on a VIP tour of Scotland’s castles.

A similar thing happened to Rita Whitt, a retired teacher from Bonney Lake, Wash. On a recent trip to Moscow, she’d paid a lot of money for a tour that included a performance of the famous Moscow Circus, but when she arrived at the pick-up area, “everything was shuttered tight.” So she improvised. She asked for the location of the circus and found that it was performing across town, in another part of Moscow.

“A local couple who spoke French, but not English, pushed me onto a city bus crammed with people going home from work,” she remembers. “They said something in Russian to the crowded masses, and about 30 minutes later, I was literally pushed off the bus, right in front of where the circus was being held.”

Sometimes improvising works, sometimes not. When Shaun Kavanaugh pre-paid for a room at a Sleep Inn in New York recently, he showed up only to discover that the property hadn’t opened yet. Hotels routinely begin accepting reservations before they open in anticipation of their opening date. But when they miss their target opening date, as Kavanaugh’s hotel had, it can leave guests homeless.

Kavanaugh, who works for a theme park in Orlando, contacted the Sleep Inn’s corporate owner and asked it to find him a comparable hotel room. But it refused, agreeing only to pay the difference between any hotel room he found on his own and his original rate. “I ended up having to drive 45 minutes over to New Jersey,” he says.

Of course, you can take all the steps to make sure that the product you booked exists – work with a reliable travel agent, call to confirm, and ask for a real-time resolution – and still come up short. Which brings us back to Hoybook, the traveler who paid for a room at a hotel that had been closed.

Orbitz initially wouldn’t stop its collection efforts, so I contacted the online agency on Hoybook’s behalff. Separately, Hoybook also reported the matter to his state Attorney General. Orbitz zeroed out his bill.

Should travel companies be required to take care of customers when reservations go wrong?

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50 thoughts on “What to do if your hotel doesn’t exist

  1. Step one: Work with an agent you trust, either on- or offline.

    For a simple domestic hotel reservation? Isn’t that like calling a neurosurgeon for a simple headache?

    How would I protect myself? It really depends on the specific travel arrangement. If I’m going to a major hotel during an ordinary time, then I’m not particularly worried; actually I’m not worried at all.

    If my destination is experiencing any special circumstances, then I’m going to be very diligent and proactive. Presidential inauguration, Super Bowl, Rose Parade, Macy Day Parade, World Series, etc. will make me triple check everything and bring my paper confirmations. If my lodging isn’t with a major chain, i.e. a B&B, small independent hotel, etc, then confirming is prudent.

    My travel tends to be to major cities, where I stay in chain hotels and rent cars from airport locations of major companies.

    1. 1) I rarely use sites like hotwire, expedia, travelocity , or orbitz outside of comparison purpose (see hotels and flight prices, etc). I’ve found booking direct is better! Pick up the phone, check hotel’s website, read reviews, but never assume. Often, direct booking yields a better prices, too due to AAA rates or specials.

      If I stay somewhere unfamiliar, I try to google local affairs. Harder if travel is spur of the moment, but break out the wifi hotspoit. Good if you’re like me. I never plan trips very detailed and tend to wing the agenda.

      2). Family needs to hire Carver (lawyer). Turned over to collections, huh? Bet their credit score is now damaged. Id be writing the big 3 agencies to get a report immediately. Obitz would receive a call, email, and letter to CEO to clean up the damage after disputing with 3 agencies or face legal woes. If not.

      corrected, I believe Orbitz opens itself up to legal liability?

      1. My understanding is that a collections agency cannot ding your credit for a disputed debt unless the debt arises from a financial institution. I’ve had several cases where companies have turned matters over to collections and I’ve instructed the collection agency not to ding the credit as this matter was in dispute. In each case the collections agency has complied. If the OPs credit were damaged who would be responsible would depend on the relationship between Orbitz and the collections company.

        As far as 3rd party websites, I dropped them like a bad habit. Too much drama for little if any savings. I’m with you.

        1. I think the OP should have Orbitz pay for a credit report for him from each of the three agencies. The collection would have been on the credit report. If they cancelled the collection directly with the collection agency it could feasibly still be on the report.

        2. Hi Carver,

          I googled and there was a 1.3 million dollar case involving credit reporting disputes. Apparently, the issue of wrongfully tarnishing one’s credit is more pervasive than suspected. The articles suggested filing a dispute with the 3 credit agencies and sending a certified letter to the company. Several letters and a paper trail are necessary. If the agency refuses to fix, seeking a lawyer (you) seems necessary.

          I imagine companies want to avoid a courtroom appearance. I suspect they’ll work to resolve the issue, but the OP definitely needs to pull a credit report to see if it’s harmed him.

          Agreed. 3rd party websites offer little intrinsic benefit. I did use Priceline to book a flight, as I wanted Travel Insurance. I was too lazy to hunt around. However, I shy away from these sites 99.9% of the time.

      2. I’m not sure if there’s much savings with normal hotel reservations through 3rd party sites, but I’ve noticed that car rentals are another matter. I recently booked a great rate through Priceline with Avis. I got there, slid a copy of the reservation over the counter, and had zero issues with them accepting the rate. I tried several bookings directly through Avis and got nothing anywhere close to what Priceline displayed.

      3. Ha! I like the “Obitz” slip in your third paragraph. It’s too true:

        “Obitz — where travel plans come to die.” 🙂

  2. For some reason, this particular hotel is in my head that it had suffered a fire? I will generally call a hotel the day before arrival to make sure they have my reservation in place, having had reservations get “lost” or “never made”.

    Sometimes, Yelp is good for finding out what’s still open, and that’s about all it’s good for, really.

    I just can’t believe he couldn’t get his money back for a pre-paid reservation made through an opaque site. I mean, what are the odds when dealing with a large, mostly anonymous website? I might go to those sites to find out what’s in the area I need, but when making reservations, I contact the business directly. Most times, you can find a better rate anyway, since most hotels and chains offer really low web rates.

    1. I have handled hotel reservations for clients over the past 3 decades and have never, ever had to call to reconfirm and no client has never had a problem at checkin. I keep hearing this ‘reconfirm your room’ from DIY’er’s.

      1. I always use a TA when I travel but I also always reconfirm hotels, air travel etc on my own before I leave. A litle paranoid I think although I have never had any problems.

        1. But a little paranoid means peace of mind – I always give all the confirmation numbers to my clients, and tell them to reconfirm if they like.

      2. It seems reasonable to double-check shortly before departure, since these kind of problems can be more easily fixed ahead of time… and not in the middle of a trip standing at the check-in desk. Everything from small errors in dates or location, to bigger issues with lost paperwork.

        I book a good portion of my hotels on Expedia, day-of or day-before… and I have discovered that for many (independent?) hotels, Expedia’s (and other OTAs) process is to *fax* a reservation to the hotel, which then gets walked from one office to another, then manually entered into their reservation system. Such processes are rife for errors. Or even working with a HTA (human travel agent) dates can be mis-said and errors can get introduced. Independently checking that reality conforms to expectations is an investment against surprises.

        This summer, I was on a bus tour (unusual for me) where the tour group leader didn’t bother to call ahead to hotels to confirm when we would arrive so that they would be ready for us. Finally, on one night we arrived and all pile into the lobby… only to discover the hotel wasn’t expecting us. The leader had mixed up hotels (her last group had stayed there) and our reserved hotel was an hour back the way we came… so almost three hours of driving and lobby crowded wasted because this “leader” had not wanted to bother with a simple confirmation phone call earlier in the day, which would have cleared everything up with us none the wiser.

  3. I think Orbitz owed the OP more than zeroing out the bill for all their troubles, at least one night’s free stay at a comparable property. It may have been an “automated world” error which compounded the problem, but it was Orbitz’s error nonetheless.

    1. At the very least also refunding the difference between the hotel they found and the hotel they were promised. They clearly couldn’t get a great rate same-day through no fault of their own.

      But yes, offering a free-day as compensation like you suggest would have paid for itself in customer goodwill.. instead of making the customer jump through hoops and get others involved. What a mess.

  4. I agree with all the previous
    postings. I seldom use third party web sites, but one time when I did with
    Travelocity and arrived at my hotel in Reno, only to find they did not have my
    reservation, I presented the front desk with a copy of my reservation and they
    called Travelocity and gave me my room.

    Further, I always book my hotels,
    flight and tours with a credit card. Should something go amiss, I always have
    the credit card company file a complaint with and I have to say that over the
    past 35 years of traveling, I have only had three instances where I have had to
    dispute charges with the credit card companies and each time I have presented
    the facts and prevailed.

    That aside, I still believe in
    due diligence, especially when there is a fear amount of money involved.
    Sometimes, a phone call, Fax or an e-mail to a place you are not certain about
    can help you rest easier at night and prevent a nasty surprise.

  5. It would seem that this kind of thing is already covered by contract law. Adding more laws and regulation will only make travel more expensive.

  6. This kind of headache could be avoided if people would simply book directly with the hotel. The only reason companies like Expedia, Hotels.com, Orbitz and the like exist is because they present themselves as some sort of magic bullet that will do all the hard research work for you–and people buy it. It’s a load of crap. These companies are NOT “online travel agencies” because the word “travel agent” infers advocate. These companies are NOT advocates for the traveler. They are there to make money, quickly, and nothing more. And because they are the “middle man” and cost the hotel a percentage of their profits, you are less likely to obtain any sort of perk, benefit, discount, etc. from the hotel when you book through one of these companies rather than directly with the hotel. As the owner of a small hotel, I have my own horror story with OTAs: http://playazone.wordpress.com/2012/12/04/expedia-bad-for-the-traveler-bad-for-the-hotel/. They are indeed bad both for the traveler and for the hotel. Buyer beware.

    1. Hi Cheri,
      I clicked your link; what a horror story! Since you’re posting on Chris’ site, have you ever thought about asking him for help with your Expedia mess? He can’t always help, but sometimes he works miracles. It wouldn’t hurt to ask. Good luck!

      1. We did correspond with Chris at the time of the incident, and we were going to have another conversation after the holidays last year if the issues weren’t resolved by then. Eventually Expedia finally removed us from their main sites, but only after a reporter from the San Francisco Chronicle contacted them. They are an evil, evil empire. But that’s all behind us now, thank goodness.

        1. Glad to hear the nightmare’s over. You should update your blog; I’d love to read how that reporter finally got Expedia to do the right thing.

          1. Having worked on a large web-based content management system (in a different industry), I can tell you that at least part of the issue was probably technical. Between many layers of caching and redundancy built into such systems, as well as data in a number of locations, completely removing content can be very difficult, especially if this is a manual process rather than fully-implemented functionality.

            In the system I worked with, data was regularly synced between servers, so unless you knew to delete content from all servers between syncs, content would “come back” within hours. If you managed to delete all the files for some content, but didn’t exactly which database entries needed to be removed or modified, ghosts of the content would keep popping up in various parts of the system, often with broken links or images.

            Different programming teams would make different assumptions about what database entries mean and which database to reference. The result Cheri described, where all images on their Expedia entry were not loading… could easily have been some under-motivated content wrangler who deleted files for the hotel but forgot to delete it from all the right databases, or neglected to mark the correct field.

            Though it does sound like management did not give high priority to fixing it, either based on animosity to the hotel or just not caring due to the smaller revenue.

    2. As a travel consultant, I am always interested in hearing from your side of things. You are correct that OTA do not advocate for people who book with them. OTA’s are only vending machines.

    3. What a Nightmare! Goes to show how one decision has long lasting repercussions. The problem belies are chains still frequent Expedia, Hotwire, and third party websites. I’ve used Priceline to book a flight with travel insurance once and 3rd party sites to scope out affairs in an area. I’ve discovered long ago booking direct offers a far better value. Prices from hotel’s websites are often cheaper than 3rd party advertised prices.

      Tripadvisor is probably one’s best tool, but you can never reply upon just one!
      End of the day, keep spreading the word. Maybe enough publicity will sway the tide.

      Consider “United Broke My Guitar”. Humor created a viral video and United could no longer shy away from the bad press. =). Maybe some witty and creativeness can help get the word out more than you already have through the media.

    4. First off, I am horrified to hear about your nightmare dealing with Expedia. It sounds like a combination of ill-will from the local reps, disfunction typical at giant technology-based companies, and the dominant position of Expedia.

      At brief glance, it seems your hotel is a mis-match to the type of hotel booking Expedia is geared toward… the large count, commodity rooms at chain hotels and generic hotel/motels. Your three-night minimum stay requirement is not typical of properties on Expedia and when looked at through an online booking engine can easily give the impression that no rooms are available. (I notice that on Booking.com, they at least suggest other dates, which I believe Expedia never does for any property.)

      The reservation form on the Luna Blue website is simply the traditional request… no way to see availability and no guarantee of a reservation. I understand why you do it that way, given the size of the hotel and cost to have an interactive reservation system… but that fundamentally conflicts with how online booking works.

      I would never think of Expedia as an “advocate” for me… they are a tool only useful if they save me time and money in selecting accommodation. While their interface and those of other OTAs have major issues, compared to some hotel booking engines I have seen, they are Apple-simple.

      You would probably be horrified and confused by the way I most commonly use Expedia to book hotels: It’s 6pm, I’m driving on from the day’s activity and it is time to decide where to stay for the night. I flip open my laptop at a hotspot or open the Expedia app on an iPhone. I run searches for hotels near the next few cities on my route. Getting a sense of the rates and quality, I choose a city and hotel, choose a room type, press book, confirm… and back on the road, maybe get something to eat, giving the reservation about an hour to get to the hotel.

      I’m not looking for a special experience… I am looking for a clean, comfortable room in the right location at a good price. Expedia (in most cases) lets me do that in literally minutes. (Although if I am being picky, it can take longer.) Sometimes, especially in Expedia dead spots, I do jot down phone numbers for hotels and call them direct. It always takes longer and the results are usually worse.

      80% of the time, when I call a hotel, they will offer me a rate that is worse then the rate displayed on my screen, even after my standard followup question for a AAA discount. Worst still, physically walking into an office and asking. I have on several occasions walked out of an office just to book the same room online where it was offered for 30% less, even when the staff insisted that rate was not offered online.

      I have seen empty hotels ask for full rates because they think once you are there, you are a captive audience. And the whole notion that customers coming from OTA’s should be treated worse misses the point… these are new customers, and potentially repeat customers. They picked your hotel from a list based mainly on location and price. If they enjoy their stay, next time they may actually want to specifically stay in your hotel, and book directly with you. (If you already know which hotel you want, why would you go to Expedia or any other OTA?)

      I do not excuse whatever caused your Expedia experience, but their system does work for certain needs quite well. Yes, they take a huge cut, but a big part of that is a manner of advertising, and essentially a convenience fee for the traveler – they can review options from most hotels in the area at a glance without spending hours on the phone.

  7. Several yeaars ago I used OTA’s for research and even once booked a trip through Travelocity. Due to issues at the airport that was the last time. Now I rarely even use OTA’s for research, I contact hotels etc directly or for the more complicated trips, eg contining flights, hotels and a cruise, I use bricks and mortar travel agent. We’re fortunate to have at least 2 good ones locally. We’ve used 2 but I’m told there are others.

    1. The problem with using OTAs for research is that the big ones (Expedia, Hotels.com, Orbitz, etc.) only list the hotels who pay them a commission. And not all hotels do (such as ours). Therefore, you’re already looking at only a subset of what’s available. Better to look at TripAdvisor to get a bigger picture of what’s out there. But if you do use TripAdvisor for research, be sure to NOT put in your dates of travel first. Once you do that, they will only display the hotels, etc. that pay them a commission, and you’re back to the same problem again.

  8. In Texas there is a law known as the “Deceptive Trade Practices Act.” It provides for attorney fees and certain costs. The Texas customer should engage a local attorney on this one – – if there’s not been some other resolution.

  9. Orbitz is supposed to be the most trustworthy of the online travel agents – yet, they insisted on trying to collect for a closed hotel until clubbed by the state AG. They deserve to be run out of business for such s blatant scam.

  10. America you need a Trade Practices Act as we have in Australia. Day after day I read about problems readers ask Chris to fix when if a similar problem arose in Australia you’d have almost instant recourse under the Act. If you don’t have a law that can be enforced then businesses will continue to suck every dollar they can from consumers. If you’ve got a million customers who cares if you lose one.

  11. Isn’t this what a travel company is supposed to do anyway, aside from serving as a one-stop shop for air, hotel, car rental and tickets to various attractions?

    1. When you go to a vending machine does it help you pick out the right snack for your diet? These companies are just passing on inventory with zero service.

      1. Nope, but you’re usually able to see if a particular snack or drink isn’t available on the vending machine. Hence, a travel company shouldn’t be selling inventory that doesn’t exist, by accident or otherwise.

        1. No they shouldn’t, but that information is cached and how often do they update? Again, what service are they actually providing?

          1. I suppose it depends on the travel company, with bricks-and-mortar companies theoretically providing more than online ones. Some provide more service than just passing on inventory or at least claim to do so. I have no idea how often information updates in their system, but the first scenario mentioned – where Orbitz didn’t refund them for a hotel that didn’t exist anymore and then sent them into collections – seems rather unacceptable to me.

  12. Sorry, but, I think people should keep a rubber mallet next to their computers. Any time they want to use one of these all in one travel sites they should smack themselves in the head with it. I don’t travel a lot. But, every time I’ve used Travelocity or Orbitz, or Expedia for research I’ve received a better rate by contacting the hotel or airline directly. Why involve a third party to muck up the works?

    1. I don’t know whether you’re including brick and mortar travel agents in your description of third party, but sometimes you have no choice. I was a consultant for a company and we had to book through that travel agency so we can get the corporate rate. I did have a problem with a reservation that I made through the agency once, but it got straightened out in the end (even though it meant walking a guest to another hotel).

      1. Sorry. I was referring to the Travelocity and Orbitz type of sites. I don’t see the value in them. And, their names pop up a lot on this site. My wife and I used a local brick and mortar agent for our first two trips as a couple. We were very happy with the experience. And, if I was booking an exotic holiday some where I would definitely be sitting down in front of an agent.

  13. Expedia is useful for finding out what’s available and a general range of prices, though after reading about the luna blue’s predicament below now I will try google maps instead.

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