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.
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!