Booking a room overseas? Beware heartbreak hotels.com

Ideas

IN YOUR CORNER

Booking a room overseas? Beware heartbreak hotels.com

You really don’t want many middlemen between you and that bed in a foreign country

Consumer journalist


Thanks to the Consumer Protection Act (CPA), a blanket “no refunds” policy for cancelled bookings is illegal.
But what if you’re using an overseas-based site such as bookings.com or hotels.com to make a booking? Does SA’s CPA still apply?
Yes, says attorney Janusz Luterek, who specialises in the CPA.
“What’s relevant is which country the hotel you making a booking for is in,” he said.
I heard of Geneva-based hotel-booking site Amoma for the first time last week when “Julia” – she asked me not to reveal her identity – of Cape Town shared her experience with me.
“The Trivago website took me to Amoma, so I wasn’t concerned at all, and I booked two nights in late June in a Lisbon hotel at a cost of R3,950. That was about R250 less than on bookings.com and other sites.
“I did see on the booking confirmation that there was no-refund cancellation policy.”
When she didn’t get any confirmation from the hotel itself, she started Googling furiously, and when she didn’t like what she saw, she decided to cancel.
Sites such as TripAdvisor are full of bad reports about Amoma, from lack of transparency in their pricing to bookings that don’t exist.
“I am happy to pay some cancellation penalty, but not the full amount, not when I cancelled just five hours after making a booking for two months away,” she said.
“I do hope you are able to help, otherwise this is going to be a horribly expensive mistake. Isn’t the Consumer Protection Act there for situations like this?”
Yes, situations like this pertaining to businesses in your own country.
Being able to shop and make bookings with a few taps on your laptop or smartphone is really convenient, but if you don’t protect yourself by using that finger power to do your research first, sooner or later you’re going to get caught.
It would appear that Amoma’s business model is different from most other booking sites. They do not have any direct relationship with hotels, and source cheap rooms via bed banks and wholesalers.
You really don’t want that many middlemen between you and that bed in a foreign country, especially if you arrive to find no room; the only way you get reach Amoma in a hurry is via phone, and you don’t have international roaming.
Julia – who has yet to share her experience with her family – has been left quite shaken by the experience.
“I am embarrassed and feel so stupid that I fell into this trap,” she said.If Julia had made that hotel booking via hotels.com and cancelled within five hours, she’d have received 50% of her almost R4,000 back. It’s still a big loss for an almost immediate cancellation.I’m currently investigating a case of a Cape Town man who made a hotels.com booking for a Western Cape guesthouse, cancelled within 24 hours and being made to forfeit 50% of his full payment.The Consumer Protection Act applies to that booking – in theory anyway.According to the act, consumers can cancel an advance booking of any kind and get a refund of what they’ve paid, minus a “reasonable” cancellation fee.“Reasonable” is open to interpretation, but there’s no way a 50% penalty, when the cancellation was done in less than 24 hours, can be considered reasonable.
Ideally, the supplier should spell out their policy in detail to whoever is paying – in writing, in the form of a sliding scale of refunds from 100% to zero.
And that’s not all.
Vendors – and that includes wedding venues – must prove a monetary loss for a missed opportunity, according to the consumer goods and services ombud. The cancellation penalty can’t be a thumbsuck.
They need to show how they calculated what they were charging for their losses.
Essentially, the greater the likelihood of the venue being able to find a booking to replace the cancelled one, the bigger the refund should be.
To put it in legal-speak, there needs to be a fair balance between the competing interests of the venue and of the booking party.
Hotels.com claimed to have “taken the initiative” to contact that West Coast guesthouse to ask for a penalty waiver, “but we were unable to get an approval”.
But the guesthouse says that didn’t happen. They’d received no communication from the site.
According to the consumer goods and services ombud, even if you cancel fairly late and the venue says you are not entitled to a refund, the venue may not enrich itself off your cancellation.So if the hotel, photographer or wedding venue gets another booking to replace yours, you are due a refund of whatever you paid them when you made the booking.I know of someone who cancelled a wedding and was made to forfeit most of her deposit by the wedding venue, but on the day she drove to the venue and saw another wedding in full swing, and was then able to successfully negotiate the refund of most of what her family had paid.Definitely worth making a note in your diary and checking!

This article is reserved for Times Select subscribers.
A subscription gives you full digital access to all Times Select content.

Times Select

Already subscribed? Simply sign in below.

Questions or problems?
Email helpdesk@timeslive.co.za or call 0860 52 52 00.