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Online booking engines: Know before you book

Travel agencies used to be commonplace in most communities. When you wanted to go somewhere, you relied on the expertise and experience of a trustworthy travel agent to help outline your itinerary and book the best hotels, flights, cars and tours money could buy at the best prices.

Enter the Internet and booking engines like Expedia, Priceline, Travelocity, Bedandbreakfast.com and more. What the Internet brought to the travel scene was the opportunity for the consumer to take matters into their own hands. I won’t say it eliminated the middle man because essentially the middle man was simply turned into an inanimate computer program rather than a living, breathing person. But it did enable people to do live, almost instantaneous comparisons on price, quality, etc. It gave consumers a platform to decide, based upon consumer feedback, what the best bang for their buck was, and what would create the best travel experience for them. There is great value in that, but there are some things you should be aware of before you click purchase.

First of all, even if the booking engine claims to not charge any kind of booking fee, they are still getting something. Often the booking fee is taken as a commission off the back end, at the expense of the hotel or airline which in turn ends up driving up costs. Have you noticed a lot of airlines charging for luggage lately and hotels charging for Wi-Fi or parking? As they say, there is no such thing as a free lunch. You may not pay for it in one form, but you are paying for it in another. Hotels and airlines alike would prefer you book directly with them rather than through one of these booking engines, and they will often make it worth your while to do so.

Next, there is an issue with privacy and marketing. Many of the booking engines out there consider your information proprietary and do not actually share it with the third party property where you will be staying. We often get reservations from Expedia or other booking engines where all we know is the name of the person checking in, the date they are arriving and leaving and what room they are in. Nothing else is provided. No phone number, no email, nothing. We have no way of contacting the guest for any further information like potential allergies and arrival time or to ask them if they would like to join us for dinner. This makes providing good customer service very challenging. In my eyes it does a disservice to both the customer and the hotel or bed and breakfast.

Finally, let’s talk about refunds and deposits. Most reservations booked via booking engines are non refundable. No exceptions. And often you cannot even talk to a customer service agent to get the situation resolved, so if there is a problem, too bad. That is not the case with the properties or airlines direct. While you may indeed get charged a fee for cancelling, which is standard, most are willing to work with you.

Do I personally use online booking engines? Sure I do. I’m no dummy. I, too, like a deal when I can get one, particularly when I travel to big cities and I’m looking at larger properties or airlines. But do your homework. Some things are just not worth booking through these websites. Be sure to cross reference between the booking engine website and the actual airline or hotel website to be sure you are really getting the best deal. Read the fine print about cancellations/refunds. And keep in mind, the smaller the property or airline, the more likely it is that they are losing out on considerable commissions to these booking engines when a reservation is booked through them rather than directly through the property or airline website.

If the price is the same either way, please do the property or airline a favor and book directly with them. It sure helps out the little guy with competing against the big guys. Small properties and airlines like us use these booking engines because it does in fact increase our potential audiences and because it increases the Search Engine Optimization of our websites, so we do value their existence. But they do come with mixed blessings. Helping to educate the consumer not only helps small businesses but gives the consumer a leg up on how to make the most out of their travel dollar.

Monika Sudakov is the chef and innkeeper at the Chestnut Street Inn in Sheffield. She can be reached at monikaandjeff@chestnut-inn.com.

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