Maybe I should have checked out Roomstays before I booked?

EmbassySuitesCovington
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When Patrick LaPella says he made a “complete mess” of his hotel reservations in Covington, KY., you should take him at his word.

As an infrequent traveler, he can’t tell a reputable online agency from one you should avoid. But he thought he knew a good deal when he saw one.

“I went online and used the DuckDuckGo.com search engine to look for a room,” he explains. “I searched for ‘Embassy Suites Covington, KY’ and I got a long list of hits; at the top was a sponsored site.”

What happened next is a compelling argument for tighter regulation of the way hotels are sold, at least online.

LaPella says he followed the link to what he believed was the Embassy Suites site. He made a nonrefundable reservation. But when the confirmation arrived by email, he was shocked to find that he’d been charged a $9.95 “booking” fee through a company called Roomstays.

Huh?

He went back to review the reservation. He hadn’t noticed the name of the site.

The font was small and the colors light and it said “Roomstays.” I should have noticed but didn’t. Shame on me!

The page offered several rooms available, but the list was not as complete as it was when I looked on the Embassy Suites page a few days earlier. I should have noticed, but again, shame on me!

So I went through the process of booking a room and made a selection. A warning screen came up that said if I confirmed the reservation it would be non-refundable. Again, I should have noticed and stopped but didn’t.

Most troubling to him was the disclosure of the booking fee.

“There was no mention of a fee anywhere during my search and confirmation process,” he says. “So I went back to the Roomstays page and found a FAQ page where they described the fee for their service.”

Online travel agencies claim this kind of disclosure — buried deep within a rarely-visited page on its site — is absolutely adequate and legal.

Who are they kidding?

It gets worse.

I then started to search online to see if others had problems with Roomstays. I found plenty.

But one complaint I found was most upsetting. The reviewer wrote that Roomstays gave him a good rate but they jacked up the taxes and fees charge in addition to charging an unearned fee of $9.95.

I found this intriguing so I went to the real Embassy Suites web page and checked the charges for taxes and fees. What I found was disturbing. I found that Roomstays had increased the taxes and fees charge by $10 per day (in my case it was a two-day stay).

Hmm, that is suspicious.

But the question is, who are you going to call? Who regulates this vast, confusing network of referrals between Embassy Suites, DuckDuckGo.com and Roomstays? Drawing a blank? Me too.

Actually, the answer is that the hotel is regulated at the state level (Kentucky). So are DuckDuckGo.com (Pennsylvania) and Roomstays (Florida). The Federal Trade Commission might have some jurisdiction, too, if LaPella can prove the companies were systematically engaged in unfair or deceptive practices.

Now, I realize that if I contact Roomstays, it will tell me the extra tax is just one big misunderstanding. It will probably offer to refund a few bucks of LePella’s room rate. But I’m outraged that the state and federal government can allow any business to pull a fast one on a customer without punishment.

Hey, regulators — thanks for nothing!

Is Roomstays a scam?

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  • Cheri Head

    Why do people keep buying something as important as vacation on these fly by night websites? I’d it seems too good to be true…it is. Remember the old days when if you wanted to stay someplace you would CONTACT THE HOTEL DIRECTLY? Why put someone in the middle of that transaction?? It only causes extra expenae, confusion and difficulty. Stop believing everything you read on the Internet!

  • ORguest

    Yes, Roomstays sounds shady. But the real problem is a careless/naive consumer. Stay away from “sponsored” links, and pay attention to where you are on the internet.

  • madtad1

    I will use “real” 3rd party to websites to look for availability wherever I am travelling to, but I always book directly on the hotel’s website for my rooms. 80% of my travel is leisure, but I still prefer a good hotel over the “Bates Motel”. The relatively few times I’ve used a 3rd party it has always been thru my airline or Expedia.

  • AKFlyer

    The real question is whether Roomstays has been passing on the (likely bogus) increased tax receipts to the appropriate state or county government. If they say they are collecting a tax, but fail to convey these funds to an entity with taxing authority (i.e., a government, not a corporation like Roomstays) they are not only engaging in deceptive trade practices but violating state or local tax laws. That kind of violation may get the Covington or KY authorities’ attention faster than the deception accusation.

  • Mark

    If I had followed your advice I would have spent hundreds, maybe thousands of dollars needlessly on room rates. By using Priceline, Agoda, Orbitz, and other sites judiciously, I’ve enjoyed many true bargains in great hotels. I’ve never fallen into the kind of traps described here. Not every stay is perfect but I doubt they would be if I’d always called the hotel to reserve a room either. You have to be careful, as this industry is full of sharks, but real 3rd-party bargains are available every day.

  • TonyA_says

    Go to their website and look for their physical address in the USA.
    Good luck if you can find one.
    Google points you to a BBB site.
    BBB has this for their address:

    8710 W Hillsborough Ave Ste 315, Tampa, FL 336158710 W Hillsborough Ave Ste 315, Tampa, FL 33615
    Most likely Ste 315 is a mailbox at this UPS store:
    Ups Store
    8710 W Hillsborough Ave
    Tampa, FL 33615

    People just have to be a lot more careful when they buy anything online.

  • jim6555

    I too use Priceline, however, there are times that an opaque site won’t do it for me. For example, my daughter and her family live in Brooklyn, NY. On the Priceline site, Brooklyn is one zone. Because parking is difficult in my daughter’s neighborhood, I usually don’t rent a car meaning that I have to walk, use public transportation or take cabs. Using Priceline, I can end up at a hotel within walking distance of her apartment or at a location that is 8 miles away without a convenient subway or bus line. If it is the latter, cab rides would more than eat up any savings that Priceline provides. When I book a hotel in Brooklyn, I go to an online agent web site like hotels.com or travelocity.com. After choosing a hotel, I will then go to the hotel chain’s site and compare the rate and terms. Because I am a AAA and an AARP member, I can usually find a better rate at the chain’s site with no prepayment required. Many times, there is also the opportunity to cancel without penalty up to 6:pm on the day of arrival.

  • Cheri Head

    Mark, I own a small hotel. We provide rates to priceline, booking.com, etc. (and previously Expedia until we were involved in a very public battle with them against their horrific practices). The rates we provide them to charge are EXACTLY the same as we offer ourselves. You have to remember that they are the middleman which means 1) they get a cut – between 15% and 35% generally – of everything you spend. This means the hotel makes that much less money, making it less likely to give you any sort of perk and 2) as the middleman, the chance of them having the most accurate information is very slim. We constantly have guests who are upset, disappointed and angry because what they read about the room or hotel on the third party site was not correct. Imagine that. These companies are not anyone’s advocate. They are their to take their cut and move on as quickly as possible. I’m glad you’ve always had good experiences. Trust me, though, one day you’ll see what everyone else means.

  • Mark

    Are you saying that I should call your hotel – or anybody else’s I’m interested in and “name my own price” like I do on Priceline, and eventually I will find someone who will accept an offer that’s similar to what I might bargain for on Priceline? And, if I do this, the hotel will be happy to get my discount business because they’re saving the Priceline commission? If that’s the way it works, I’d be happy to give it a try. But I’m not sure the reservation desk would appreciate my 40%-below-published-rate bids.

  • Cheri Head

    Mark, I’m glad this system has worked for you. As long as you’re okay with the risks and fine print, good for you. Money isn’t always everything. Personally I like to know where I’m staying and support businesses directly. The increases in costs of travel are directly related to the existence of such businesses. But hey, good for you. Take care.

  • dcta

    Always, always, always search this way when looking for a specific vendor/service”

    “Embassy Suites Covington KY official site”

  • dcta

    Hmmm….when you work with a Travel Agent who is affiliated with a good consortia – Travel Leaders, Ensemble, Virtuoso, etc. and you take one of their negotiated rates (a Travel Leader’s rate for example), you pay the same lowest rate AND you get perks – sometimes an upgrade if available, most often breakfast and a little something in the room.

    Why do hoteliers market heavily to travel agents? It’s certainly not because the make “that much less money”! Yes, the hotelier is paying us, but s/he’s really not losing much as the commission s/he pays us is built into his/her rate structure.

  • pauletteb

    Is it just me, or do many of these travel scams really do come out of Florida?

  • DrewT

    Better yet… if you know that you’re looking for a particular hotel, why not go to the brand site for that hotel — in this case, hilton.com or embassysuites.com, and then look for “Covington, KY”? Unless I’m traveling for work, when I _have_ to use our corporate travel site, I always go straight to the vendor themselves…

  • http://solutionz.com/ chickefitz

    Please note that the address on the BBB site is for the Tampa office that handles all of the escalated complaints for Roomstays and handles the BBB relationship. Like many individuals in this country, I work from home and use a mailbox for my business mail.

    This company is not a scam. It is the #57 travel agency in the country based on 2012 hotel sales (out of over 15,000 online and offline travel agencies).

  • TonyA_says

    Why put someone in the middle of the transaction?
    Well, it depends on who that someone is and for what valid reason.
    For very simple trips, I do agree with you.
    A traveler can easily book his/her airline tickets and hotels directly.
    Where things get a little more complicated – like a 2-3 week visit to Japanese cities – that’s a little harder to do.
    Also when you are in larger group (like a multi-generational family trip), that is harder to do.
    For the latter examples, folks may want a good travel agent to put together a whole package. Good travel agents ADD VALUE. They do not simply tout low prices.

    IMO, the reason why the Patrick LaPellas of the world make a mistake is they trust the internet too much. They need to realize that paid links are not necessarily results of good searches. Plus most probably they buy too much on the basis of price alone.

  • TonyA_says

    A good hotel in Brooklyn? Wow, airbnb :-)
    When you go out of Manhattan, your search gets much harder.

  • TonyA_says

    It would have been great if you addressed the LW’s complaint.
    But I don’t think you did, did you?

  • TonyA_says

    Are you the owners of Luna Blue in Riviera Maya, MX?
    Regardless, can you please explain why other hoteliers succumb to offering Expedia and Priceline such high discounts?
    IMO, Mark’s shopping habits would not be doable if hotel distribution was stuck at the old 10% commission scheme.
    When the wholesalers (empowered by high discounts) went on overdrive in the internet, weren’t they targeting the Marks of the world? Shouldn’t we blame the hotels and the wholesalers together for this so-called mess?

  • http://solutionz.com/ chickefitz

    Tonya, I have contacted Mr. LaPella directly, as the resolution of each customer complaint involves the privacy of the guest and we value our commitment to that privacy. Once I receive his itinerary number, we will take care of getting a courtesy refund processed for him for the service fee and will look into the discrepancy in the rate that he reported. We represent over 100,000 properties and need to check into the specific situation with the specific room type booked for the specific dates.

    I have also spoken with Christopher, the author of this column about each of the issues, many of which span every category of online buying and not just travel and he has agreed to write a follow on to this article.

    I am an industry expert on travel distribution and have written about many of these issues on my blog, as educating consumers and being their advocate is something I also care greatly about.

    http://blog.solutionz.com/2014/06/consumer-confusion-using-search-and.html

  • TonyA_says

    Are you telling us that Chris Elliott is blessing your site?
    I find that quite unbelievable given the number of negative reviews roomstays has on several consumer sites like trustpilot, traveladvisor, complaintsboard, ripoffreport, etc.
    By simply reading some of the 139 complaints in BBB, one can easily get the impression that the company charges extra fees to book hotel rooms.

    I’m not sure what you mean by you represent over 100,000 properties … Well any travel agent with access to GDS can say something similar since they can book hotels. Similarly anyone who can resell Aggregator invertory (e.g. Tourico, miki, lowcostbeds. etc.) can claim the same. How much research do you have to do to explain why you charge an “extra” booking fee?
    That’s the issue here Ms. Chicke F.

    Finally it is hard to believe self-proclaimed industry experts and especially those who call themselves advocates become hotel room resellers themselves. Who are you advocating for? Who are you really educating.

  • TonyA_says

    Just read an article from the NYT
    Source: nyti.ms/1iysgX2
    Despite Expedia’s multimillion ad budget, it’s incredible another middle man has to go between the customer and Expedia (another middle man) when searching in the web. goggle is happy :)

    Chicke Fitzgerald, chief executive of Solutionz, a consulting company for the travel industry who also handles consumer complaints for RoomStays.com, another affiliate of Expedia, attributed some of the problems to customers’ lack of web skills.

    “People just don’t understand how online searches work,” she said. “The thing I always tell people who complain is that they must pay attention to the URL — it’s like a sign outside a store. You must look at what is to the left of the dot-com.”

    She also said RoomStays.com had processed and closed 117 complaints with the Better Business Bureau over the last three years out of 1.1 million rooms booked.

    After being contacted about consumer complaints regarding RoomStays.com’s booking practices, Ms. Fitzgerald said RoomStays.com added a new page to its website to give customers a direct route to complain about payment issues.

  • http://solutionz.com/ chickefitz

    Tony, as measured against the other 14,000+ travel agencies in the US (online and offline agencies), Roomstays is #57 based on annual revenues (based on Travel Weekly’s PowerList, which shows the major players in the industry). I believe that statistic shows that Roomstays is a “real” company and not at all fly-by-night.

    As the NY Times article stated, my firm has been contracted by Roomstays to handle all their escalated customer complaints precisely because of our customer advocacy passion and more specifically my industry reputation.

    What you don’t see on the BBB site when you just read the surface of the complaint is the level of detail that we go through with each customer to get their situations resolved. I personally invest as much as 2-3 hours per complaint. As a result, we are very close to achieving 100% customer satisfaction post-complaint and 100% closure on complaints, which is why Roomstays has an A- rating with the BBB (the highest possible for a company less than 5 years old). And with the current BBB stats of 139 complaints on over 2 million room nights over the past three years, that is a complaint ratio of 0.0000695.

    And while there are complaints on other sites, the bulk of the time they are done anonymously, which makes it harder for us to respond and clear up the situation.

    We encourage consumers to go through the BBB when they are frustrated or to work with someone reputable like Christopher Elliott who is a true consumer advocate, as that ensures that the complaint is funneled to the responsible party and that the consumer actually is “heard” versus just venting anonymously.