When is an advertised price for a hotel room the total price you’re going to be charged?
In doing our homework about resort fees, ConsumerAffairs stumbled on a different enigma with some of the Expedia Group sites (which include Expedia.com, Hotels.com, Orbitz, et al). The issue was how quickly and transparently those online travel agencies (OTA) divulged what “taxes and fees” were tacked on to the price promoted at the beginning of the process -- a rate that the consumer might believe to be the actual final price.
“Likely many people booking rooms anchored onto the price they saw in a big, bold font on the screen, without thinking to read any further,” Sara Rathner, travel expert at NerdWallet told ConsumerAffairs.
“So when they’re charged this extra fee at the reception desk, it comes as a shock. But that fine print is available upon booking, you just have to hunt for it. It could be that hotels did disclose these fees upon booking -- in super-fine print hidden behind hyperlinks. Sometimes these fees are bundled under a general ‘taxes and fees’ line item so consumers can't exactly see what they're paying for.”
When ConsumerAffairs ran tests on Expedia Group sites, our general takeaway was one of ambiguity. Here are some of the things we experienced:
On Hotels.com, it took us at least three drilldown clicks before we were shown information relating to “taxes and fees.” However, a mouse-over provided some information.“Taxes are tax recovery charges paid to the hotel for its tax obligations. The fees are service charges that we keep as additional compensation for servicing your travel reservation. Please see Terms and Conditions,” the notice read.
When we called the site’s customer service/reservations number, we were given a variety of responses about taxes and fees, but usually not until we asked for clarification. Even then, we were told everything from “there are no fees” to the fees including “cleaning and stuff like that.”
The “taxes” portion is difficult to ascertain. In one call to Hotels.com about a Lincoln, Nebraska hotel, we were told that local taxes were “8.25 percent,” yet when we spoke with Derek Feyerherm, the Director of Sales & Operations for the Lincoln Convention and Visitors Bureau, we found that the consumer would pay 16 percent tax by the time everyone in the tax handout line was given their due -- city, state, etc.
Is this just an Expedia issue?
Expedia is likely not alone in this can of worms. It’s only fair to report that customer satisfaction with Expedia is the same as the consumer satisfaction with the overall internet travel website industry, according to Statista. On ConsumerAffairs, the company also has comparable ratings to its competitors.
We also researched room rates on a Choice Hotels site for a hotel in Panama City, Florida. When we pinpointed an affiliated property and called to ask that hotel’s agent for a breakdown of what the taxes included, we were told we couldn’t get one unless the agent actually processed the charge.
It’s unclear how muddy this situation is across the entire online booking spectrum, but ConsumerAffairs found that the Booking Holdings sites (Booking.com, Priceline.com, Kayak.com, et al) often get taxes and fees out in plain sight, in black and white on its grid of what’s included, and much earlier in the process. In that regard, the advantage goes to Booking.
One comparative sticking point between the two major sites is that Expedia offers a toll-free number where consumers can ask questions, but getting through to someone at the Booking call center requires a confirmation number and pin code. Unfortunately, because we didn’t have either, we weren’t able to fully compare what taxes and fees disclosures we would obtain from a Booking agent versus what we received from Expedia.
One important note regarding transparency: a consumer may not always know what OTA they’re really dealing with. “Expedia loves to acquire smaller reservation sites to add to its ever-increasing repertoire of websites,” writes Investopedia’s Vanessa Page. “Often this is not even known to the consumer; for instance, a customer will visit hotwire.com, pay hotwire.com, and receive a bill from hotwire.com, but all while transacting with Expedia.”
Redundancy is not exclusive to Expedia. Booking also has some. For example, if a consumer finds a hotel rate they like on Kayak and wants to book it, they’ll be transported to Booking.com to finalize the transaction.
Is this a scam or purposeful?
This does not have any markings of a scam. Some consumers may feel that way, but until the U.S. government regulates OTAs, the consumer is responsible for reading the fine print and asking questions -- lots of questions.
If a consumer wants a complete breakdown of what they’re being charged, Feyerherm suggests calling the hotel directly. “They should have all that in their system,” he said.