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Does it make sense to use the internet to book hotels?

If you know exactly the hotel you want to stay at, and understand what a fair rate would be, the internet can help you.

But if you're unfamiliar with a city or with going room rates, the internet will merely confuse and confound you, and the time cost to book your own hotels will vastly eclipse and potential savings you might achieve.

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Online Hotel Booking

Not yet ready for prime time

Not all hotel descriptions (eg central downtown location) should be believed!



Last night I spent two and a half hours of frustration while booking, online, two hotels in Switzerland.

Maybe, for simple 'web special' roundtrip airfares, the internet is valuable, but two and a half hours - on a high speed DSL line - to book two hotels is neither convenient nor sensible.

Note - although this article was written in 2002, many of the issues and problems remain, even now (2009).

A simple task that took two hours

Amongst other delights in my attempt to book two hotels in Switzerland was a web site that confused Bern, Switzerland, with other place names around the world that included 'Bern' as part of their name. I very nearly ended up booking a hotel room in France rather than Switzerland, and only realized my mistake when noticing that the postal code was very different.

Other websites offered hotels, but only 40 miles out of the city when I tried to book a central city hotel room - at least it was in the same country, but how many people, when trying to book a downtown hotel room expect to be offered a hotel 40 miles away, up in the mountains!

Another website confirmed availability at a hotel, but when I gave a credit card number to guarantee the booking, it then told me that the hotel had no available rooms! This was probably correct, because no other website had availability at that hotel as well, but why did the website initially confirm availability and ask for my credit card?

And then there was the hotel that most sites described as 'conveniently located on the right bank of Lake Geneva'. Only after considerable research did I find a site that actually showed where the hotel was located on a map. Several blocks back from the lake - forget about any lake views from that hotel, no matter what the other websites implied.

Let's not forget about the several hotels where the websites would quote a rate, eg, 'From $125' only to find out that the lowest actual available rate was more than twice the quoted price.

Whether it be poor website design, deliberately misleading information, or whatever, booking hotels online is not easy. I should add that I have no idea what hotels I actually have booked - I'll add a postscript to this article in November after I have visited and let you know if I was fortunate or not in my eventual choices!

Booking Hotels Online Should be Simple!

If you don't already know exactly the hotel you want, and particularly if you don't really understand the layout of the city you'll be visiting, or what the going rates for hotel rooms should be, then you'll find a journey through the world of internet hotel booking services fraught with confusion, incomplete information, and frustration.

But it should be simple and easy. There is no special magic required. The typical traveler needs to know some very basic things, including :

  • A helpful location map (including a distance scale) that shows where the hotel is compared to the city centre, airports, freeways, rail stations, etc

  • Photos of the hotel exterior and interior

  • Quality rating (eg so many stars or category description)

  • Exterior and bedroom images

  • Convenient complete lists of hotels per city with helpful summary information per hotel, all on one (big) web page to make comparisons easy

  • Convenient lists of all hotels that have availability for a selected time period complete with applicable rates

  • Rates that clearly indicate what currency is being quoted, whether the rate is per person or per room, and what is and what is not included in the rate, and, if taxes are not included, how much they will be

  • Ability to quickly get rate and availability information without having to provide any personal information or credit card number

  • Instant availability and confirmations of bookings

  • No prepayment for hotel bookings

Okay, so none of this is rocket science, is it! But, no website consistently offers all these features. Yes, some are better than others, but none is yet perfect.

A Booking Checklist

If you insist on doing your own hotel booking, here is a quick checklist for you to use when booking hotel rooms. If you follow this checklist, you're less likely to have nasty surprises in store for you :

  • Have you seen on a map, and do you understand, exactly where the hotel is located?

  • Do you know what the rate is, which currency it is quoted in, whether this rate is per person or per room, per night or per complete stay?

  • Do you understand the standard/quality of the hotel?

  • Does the rate include everything or are taxes, surcharges, gratuities, service fees, etc, extra? How much are such extra costs if they exist? Are there any other mandatory costs that you might have to pay?

  • Are there any extra inclusions such as breakfast, and, if so, is it a cooked or continental breakfast?

  • Do you understand what room type and bedding configuration you will be getting?

  • Is your reservation guaranteed? Will it be held for late arrival?

  • What is the change, cancellation and refund policy if you need to change or cancel your booking?

  • Did the credit card number you gave to the internet booking service merely guarantee your room, or did they charge a deposit (or even the full stay) at the time you made your booking to the credit card?

  • If you have any special needs or requirements or expectations, you should double check with the hotel directly that these special service requests have been received by them and are understood and will be provided.

Some people suggest contacting the hotel directly, perhaps 24 hours after you've made the online booking, to confirm that the booking has appeared in their local computer system. You should also then check with them that the booking, as they see it, is the same as the one you think you made in terms of room type, room rate, etc.

Most importantly, if you prepaid any amounts to the internet website, confirm that you won't be billed again by the hotel directly. Remember that most internet websites are completely independent of the hotels they service, and could be located anywhere in the world; once they get your money, there is no guarantee that they will pass it on to the hotel in time for your stay.

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Originally published 4 Oct 2002, last update 21 Jul 2020

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.



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