Booking On Line vs. On Phone

I just wanted to make a single-night hotel reservation for our upcoming road trip. Even though it will be after Labor Day, the coastal town is small and touristy, so I didn’t want to take the chance of waiting until we got there.

We are looking forward to visiting the Rock again.

First, I went online to check out options and reviews on a few hotel booking sites. I wanted something not too pricey but close enough to the embarcadero, shops, and restaurant area to be walkable. Fortunately, there were several reasonable choices with vacancies for the night we’d be there. Easy enough so far.

Many people would simply choose a hotel and click over to the booking site’s reservation page, but I don’t like to do this. I prefer to make my reservations either by calling the hotel directly or by going on their website. I may be old school, but I’ve often found that doing this has a few advantages:

  • Better rates
  • Better discounts
  • Better cancelation policies
  • Better communication

I typed in the name of the hotel and found a website that appeared to be theirs; the landing page gave no indication that it was not. I looked to see if they offered any discounts (AAA and AARP are the most common) but couldn’t find any. That should have been my first clue, but I figured since it was a tourist town, maybe they didn’t need to offer incentives. I made our reservations and printed out the receipt. That’s when I noticed something in the small print that concerned me. The cancelation policy was very unclear. Despite the verbiage, “free cancelation,” there was enough gobbledygook to indicate that “free” might be a euphemism for “not free.”

So, to get clarification, I did what I should have done first, and called the hotel directly.

It turns out that I hadn’t, in fact, made reservations on the hotel’s website. I did have a reservation, but I had made it through a third-party, exactly what I didn’t want to do. I asked the woman—an actual, very nice, human at the actual hotel—about their rates, if they offered any discounts, and what their cancelation policy was. Although their beginning rate was similar, they did offer a AAA discount, and their cancelation policy was 100% refund up to a day before.

Following a brief conversation about our mutual dislike of these third-party booking sites, I asked if she could cancel my original reservation and book us direct. After trying unsuccessfully, she suggested that I contact the booking site directly. She would hold the room and wait to hear back from me. So much nicer than a computer.

I won’t go into all the details but suffice it to say, the booking site did not make it easy to cancel. But, after calling a few different numbers, getting in a few automated phone tree loops, and having my call cut off, I finally reached an agent in India. She canceled my reservation, and I called the hotel back to re-book. Done.  

Like so many “conveniences” afforded us by the interwebs, these booking sites come with a price. Not only can they end up costing more, but their cancelation policies are also often stricter, and communication is challenging or nonexistent. By calling the hotel directly, I saved money, have a generous, understandable cancelation policy, and learned a bit more about the area where we’ll be staying. 

This experience did nothing to lessen my discomfort about booking through these sites. They are fine for doing research but, while they offer expediency, they don’t offer the good communication and human touch I prefer.     

Author: Janis @ RetirementallyChallenged.com

My blog is about travel, relationships, photography, and whatever else pops into my head (even, sometimes, issues surrounding retirement and aging).

106 thoughts on “Booking On Line vs. On Phone”

  1. Great insights on the current state of booking lodging in these crazy United (?) States. But you had me at the photo – Morro Bay! One of our fav places – lots of memories for us as a family. Even Pismo is cool. The central coast is way underrated.

  2. I am the same mostly, but there is one booking site I like and found to be very clear with all my experiences using them.

    I like that rock too. It’s been sometime since we last visited there. It’s lovely there and a place we thought we might like to retire to, but it’s too costly in almost everywhere in CA now.

    1. I’m glad you found a site you like (care to share which one?). I’ll probably stick to direct contact whenever possible but sometimes it’s necessary to book online.

      I will often check out the real estate shop windows just to see what the prices are in various areas. I imagine Morro Bay is pretty pricey.

      1. Some friends retired to a town just south of it and so far are very happy, but they don’t know if they’ll be able to stay if prices and taxes keep going up and up and up.

        Booking.com is the one I have used and have no complaints about. I’ve also used Expedia in years past and was happy. Like you I do tend to book directly though.

  3. I have made that same mistake. I clicked on a website that I thought was the hotel. We had stayed at the hotel many times before — but I had landed on a third party website. So annoying.

        1. It was a bit of a challenge. Problem was all on MY end. For some reason I had to sign in, and my password wouldn’t work. It took me a while to realize I needed to use my user name instead of my email.

          Sent from my iPhone

  4. Agreed! I usually like to call the hotel direct (after checking out what the discount hotel booking site is offering, for comparison). I mention that I’ve looked online but prefer my $ go directly to the hotel and they are always happy to at least meet the online discounted price…so far. And like you noted, you often get better deals and a better cancellation policy amongst other perks, like developing a relationship with a real human being on the other end of the phone. Great post, Janis!

    Deb

  5. No disagreement here. Once I booked through a site for Key West. Our room was a really good price (that was the first red flag). It was along a walkway and everyone walking by looked in. We had to keep our drapes closed all the time. Also all the rooms were water front but ours. We were next to the utility area. We couldn’t upgraded on site either. Boogers.

  6. I’ve been caught several times in this same situation by clicking on what I think is the hotel chain’s ad in the list of sites that come up. I now look at the URL of the site and if it isn’t completely identified with the hotel I’m looking for, I leave and go back to the list. Better warned than caught in a booking that you regret. Take care and know you’re not alone in this!!

  7. Oh my, this is another lesson to be learned, and I appreciate your sharing. I usually book online, but directly with the hotel website. I ‘belong’ to a couple of them so if their prices are competitive, I sign into my account and book from there. Again, thank you for sharing.

  8. I have to admit, we have a hotels.com account and use them exclusively. Our experience has been very positive, and for every 10 nights we book, we get a free room. We do so much traveling, I’ve lost track of the number of free nights we’ve redeemed!

    1. Madtown Migrant… love it! Now you’ll need a new gravatar.

      I honestly have no idea whose site I was on when I first booked the reservation. I did my research on something like Expedia or Booking but when I tried to get on the hotel’s site, there was no indication that I wasn’t on the actual site. That’s what made me a bit annoyed.

      I think if I did a lot of traveling, especially for work, it could make sense to go for the freebees.

  9. Sadly, we have lost so much of that personal touch when it comes to customer service. I tend to be careful when looking up websites, ensuring I am on their actual site and not an “ad” or third party site. Good to hear you were able to cancel (with some perseverance), and rebook in the end!

  10. Good posty. I agree. I’ve found it almost always pays to deal directly with the hotel … or any other travel venue. Airbnb is the one exception. They make sure you can’t contact directly — it’s fard to do even if you’ve been to the place before.

  11. The same thing happened when I tried booking a flight with Westjet. Without paying attention, I booked a flight with a US website that looked like the official airline company. It looked like a great deal at first. But the fine print indicated that the price was in US dollars. What a disappointment!

  12. Great customer service is at the top of my list and will keep me coming back. I, too, prefer booking directly with the hotel for all the reasons everyone has mentioned. I don’t travel much at all but I’ll certainly be careful about whose website I’m on when I book reservations.

  13. Like Judy, we belong to the “frequent flyer” club for a couple of hotel chains, and I’ll book rooms directly online using our membership number. The cynic within me bets the site you stumbled upon is staying just inside the law. Thanks for the heads up, Janis!

    Interestingly, reserving campsites is a little different. Because we favor state and federal campsites (as opposed to privately owned RV parks) and because they have online reservation systems, I book all of our campsites online through those reservation systems. Federal campgrounds use Recreation.gov. Many states use ReserveAmerica.com; those that don’t have their own state specific reservation system. Unlike the world of hotels, there isn’t a huge number of booking sites to wade through. And the cost is what it is. Better deals can’t be found elsewhere. However, even though the two major booking sites have call centers, you actually have a better chance of getting the campsite you want online. Some popular campgrounds sell out within minutes of when the booking window opens for a particular day. If you hit the reservation button as the clock strikes the appropriate hour, you might have a chance. If you’re on the phone with a call center rep trying to explain what you want, you’re probably out of luck. So, reserving online is almost always better. Intriguing differences.

      1. Federal parks have been online for some time and so far the states I’ve looked at are all online. Some systems are good, some a lacking. I don’t usually stay at paid campgrounds or parks, but just recently grabbed a spot on the California coast for our return trip to So Cal. Process was easy but what is lacking our the details…can I see the ocean or not, am I 10’ or 50’ away from someone, is there any shade or am I fully exposed. You can make a phone call but it is true that taking the time, may not be worth it if it’s a popular park.

        1. This is so much different from when we went camping as a family when I was young. I know my parents often made reservations for the most popular parks, but I remember crossing our fingers a few times when we got to a campsite late. Of course, we just needed a spot for our 5-person tent and a picnic table 🙂

      2. I don’t know when the state and federal governments began using an online reservation system. I’ve been using ReserveAmerica and Recreation.gov since 2007 – the year after we bought our first travel trailer.

        Interestingly, back in the day (40+ years ago), when Alan and I were tent camping we often stayed at KOA campgrounds. It’s a franchise and each KOA would call ahead to the next one on our itinerary to reserve a campsite for us. No computers in sight, just a handy dandy rotary dial phone!

  14. My husband typically handles hotel reservations and we’ve had nothing but good experiences with Booking.com. But I guess I don’t know if we are getting the best rates. I just know cancellations have been easy and the hotels have been good.

  15. I always book directly through the hotel website, not a third party. I’ve found the rates cheaper online than calling. Plus the time factor…

  16. Ah yes, those travel site euphemisms. I’m right on the heels of your activities, Janis. I made a reservation for us in December, and I too noticed how deceiving some of these third party sites are. They have the look-and-feel of the actual hotel but in fact aren’t. It took me several tries to make sure I got it right. Kudos to you for hanging in there and getting that cancellation — now keep a close eye on your credit card! – Marty

  17. Oh wow…I’m so glad you were able to cancel that other booking and book directly through the hotel! And I see that you’re going to Morro Bay, which is always one of our favorite places on the central coast. Watching the sea otters in the bay is a delight. Can’t wait to read all about your trip!

    As Mary said, we also pretty much travel exclusively RVing, and we almost always have to book through reservation sites. But because I’m so persnickety, I often call a campground directly to ask them questions about sites. I want our site to be spacious, beautiful, far away from the restrooms and lights, and not next to the dumpster, LOL. Good luck with the rest of your planning!

  18. You sure summed that up nicely, Janis!

    As you might have guessed, us frugal people believe in getting the best deals via online “middle men” platforms. Often, we succeed in getting the cheapest rates but, also often, this comes at a price, similar to what you describe in this post.

    I have spent hours on hold with companies in India and have gotten nothing resolved. Getting into my last experience (getting to Belgium) would take an hourlong write-up, but suffice it to say, if we didn’t lose money in the end we will have lost precious time and effort – unless everything goes according to plan. But when does that ever happen anymore post-Covid??

    Enjoy Morro Bay!!! We have an eccentric friend who lives there and works at one of the barber shops. His name is Johnny Coconut. I have blogged about him before. 🙂

  19. Hi, Janis – I am glad that you were able to finally cancel the reservation – despite the huge hassle.
    Like another of your readers, I have had good success using Booking.com. Because I use them frequently, I get an extra discount with them. I do always double check though to see which is cheapest Booking or the actual site. I have had many experiences where Booking.com was cheaper than the original site and their cancellatiion policy was just as good. I swear that this is where my retirment time goes — researching all of these sites. I agree that it can be mindboggling! Great to see you posting again!

      1. Thanks, Linda – I’ve been happy with Booking.com. Once ,when I arrived to a hotel as a walk-in, the hotel price was MUCH higher than I had seen on Booking.com. The receptionist couldn’t change the cost of the room in her system so suggested that I sit in the hotel lobby and book a room for their hotel on Booking. (Which is exactly what I did). 😀

  20. Hi Janis,
    What a hassle for you, but I am just as old school by wanting to call the hotel directly. Like you said, research is one thing, but calling directly and talking to a live person at the hotel makes a world of difference and lessens headaches in the long run. Thanks for sharing your wisdom, and I’m glad it all worked out. Have a fabulous time!

  21. I’ve never used a booking site, as I’ve heard too many complaints about them. I always go directly to the hotel’s site, or even call (although they always act surprised when I do that.) I’m glad you finally got it all sorted out!

    1. I guess if I traveled using hotels a lot I might find the sites convenient but I like dealing direct (funny about them acting surprised). I think the smaller hotels sign up with the sites because they have to in order to remain competitive but each booking costs them a fee.

  22. Wow, Janis, that is interesting. I have had really good experiences with Expedia, so I do most of my booking with them, but I like your great layout of advantages to booking with the hotel.

  23. I agree with you about contacting the hotel directly. About the only time I don’t is with the chains I have rewards with. Also VRBOs. How horrible to have to hassle to cancel with a third party. Ick.

  24. I understand your hesitancy when using online booking sites. To use them seems like a leap of faith, while talking directly with the hotel seems legit. Yours is a cautionary tale for me, so thanks.

  25. I usually book direct with airlines and hotels on their websites. When COVID-19 hit, I got 100% refunds from the airlines for the flights I booked without having to call anyone.

  26. We just passed through the area last week. First time driving the beast down the coast (future post) and last time driving the beast down the coast…lol. I commend you for doing the phone research! I have little patience for phone calls in general. I especially commend you for navigating the near impossible web of details and calls to get your cancellation! For hotels, I always go direct (web site mostly) as well and fortunately have a nice frequent traveler acct to leverage which always keeps the booking process and costs streamlined.

    Enjoy Morro Bay. Always have fond memories of that town and section of the coast.

    1. Hi there! Somehow, I kept losing your comments and a couple ended up in my spam folder. Hopefully now things are straightened out (although, with WP, anything is possible). I’m not good on the phone either but the benefit of having a human contact makes it worth it. Morro Bay was gorgeous! We hadn’t been there in several years and it’s still as quant as ever. I’m looking forward to following your adventures!

  27. I’m 100% with you. I don’t use “middlemen” sites for booking either hotel rooms or flights. Sometimes they can offer better rates, but if something goes wrong, you’ll have a much worse time getting it sorted out to your satisfaction.

  28. So much to beware of these days Janis when what seems easier is the opposite. Here you were being proactive, not wanting to take a chance on finding accommodations and see what happens … you thought your biggest concern was ensuring you had adequate “plug-in ports” for the EV. Good luck on your trip.

  29. Working in the hotel industry, always better to book direct. Because if you need to make any changes to your reservation, its so so much easier for the people on both sides of the phone. Third parties are horrible

    1. Good to get an insider’s perspective, thank you! I had a bit of a discussion with the woman at the hotel when I called her direct, and she wasn’t crazy about the third-party sites either. They list their hotels on there in order to remain competitive but prefer to get their bookings direct.

  30. That’s was very nice experience.. I believed if anything can be done online then why should I call for reservations but this blog mak it clear for me how it actually works and how to get discount. Very informative

  31. This got buried, Janis! I’m so glad to read you worked it out, but oh so many scams for booking accommodations! It’s actually scary. Thank you for sharing your story. We used a couple of third-party sites like Expedia and had good experiences, even when we needed to cancel or change. I’m like you, I prefer to book directly and actually have a conversation with real people at the actual place!

  32. Whenever we travel, Janis, my husband books all the lodging (he loves that part – ensuring that he has plenty of pillows, for one). Like you, he prefers calling the hotel directly when it’s an option. I’m glad you were able to get everything straightened out in the long run. Enjoy your travels!

  33. Wow. I think you were lucky that the “booking” site didn’t abscond with your credit card information! Sheesh. I’ve noticed something recently with restaurants. Since the pandemic and labor shortages, many have disconnected their phones for reservations or ordering out. One is forced to use an app to make a reservation or to order food. If you’ve got a question, you’re up s– tcreek.

    1. I understand the labor issues, but I sure hope it gets worked out soon. I don’t like not having a real human to talk to, ask questions of, verify with, etc. I once tried to order take out (for us to pick up ourselves) and somehow got Door Dash. Maybe it’s me but it seems these “conveniences” could be made much clearer.

      1. I know what you mean. But I have the feeling that we are our grandparents. The younger generations don’t use the phone as a phone. They are app driven and I kind of get it. Till I need to speak with a real person and there’s no one there!

  34. Thanks for the tips and it seems like some of these third parties are sneaky!!
    Hope your trip is going awesome (and from your wordless Wednesday post I see it is a beautiful location)

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