The last-minute hotel booking site HotelQuickly has gone under, leaving hundreds of travelers stranded without hotel rooms and with worthless vouchers instead of refunds. The company based in Singapore was a copy cat of successful hoteltonight, offering last minute hotel stays at low prices. Meta-search sites that compare hotel and flight bookings across hundreds of sites and focus only on the price have made these start ups possible, introducing them to millions of travelers. How can you protect yourself and what does the meta-search providers need to do?
I reviewed HotelQuickly a few years back and found them to offer competitive rates, especially in Asia for stays at independent mid-range and budget hotels for stays a few days out. I also noted some deceitful practices, suggesting questionable business ethics. Yet while it is easy to copy another business idea and throwing up a web site, building a successful and profitable business is a lot harder.
HotelQuickly clearly couldn’t make it work and started to default on payments to their suppliers, leaving travelers stranded with cancelled reservations. Initially, they offered their clients vouchers for future stays, which have proven worthless: HotelQuickly’s website is still up but searches don’t return any results anymore, so you can’t book hotels and won’t be able to use your voucher!
What can you do? If you were a HotelQuickly customer and lost your reservation, file a claim with your credit card company for failure of the merchant to deliver the service and you should be able to get your money back if it was a recent transaction.
If you have a booking with HotelQuickly and haven’t received a cancellation, check with your hotel that your booking is still valid. If you are lucky, HQ paid for it before they went under and you are still good to go. If not, file a claim with your credit card company.
How to protect yourself? I use meta-seach sites like Kayak for flights or hotelscombined for every trip I book, because it is a quick and easy way to find the lowest fare and I recommend to use them to!
I also recommend to not reflexively book the lowest price, but the best value! For me that means to for example consider quality of service and safety for flight bookings. If a premium carrier like Singapore Airlines is just a little more than a Low Cost Carrier or second-tier airline, I will fly them. If the price on the airline website is just a few bucks more than an obscure Online Travel Agent (OTA) I’ve never heard off, I’ll pay it for peace of mind and book direct.
I approach hotel bookings the same way: If the price is within a few dollars, I will book through a reputable OTA I’ve used many times, like hotels.com, Agoda, bookings.com or Expedia. There are lots of sites out there that have questionable policies (like re-selling bookings, which may or may not be legal at the destination or hotel), terrible or no customer service and may not be in business by the time you travel. This is especially true for bookings that are very important or far out.
If you find a great deal with a site you are not familiar with, look for online reviews: A few times I have researched deals that seemed to be too good to be true, the reviews of the sites were so bad that I backed off and paid more through a more reliable provided.
What responsibility do meta-search engines have? Meta-search engines like Kayak have revolutionized the travel market and made it much more transparent, saving travelers millions in the process. And similar to Google, they take no responsibility for the results they show, considering themselves a broker of information more than a travel management company.
But similar to social media sites like Facebook, they can’t claim innocence when their platform use results in significant damage to users or society in general.
I expect meta-search sites to vet their providers and not allow scammers and fraudulent operators to use them. They show the results with a sole focus on price, suggesting that all other things are equal or at least similar. For that to be true, at a minimum they have to enforce that all providers they show are viable, legal businesses meeting general expected business terms.
And true, HotelQuickly WAS a viable business at some point. But signs were spreading earlier in the year that there were problems, when reviews of cancelled HotelQuickly bookings started to pile up. A company that makes it its business to excel in search should be expected to monitor reviews and suspend a provider from the search results when troubles are mounting. That should also include much more negative customer feedback than average or questionable business models.
Bottomline: The internet is the new frontier for Wild West business practices and we all have to be careful in how we use it for business transactions. And this serves as another reminder that the lowest price is not always the best deal. So, keep using meta-search for your travels, evaluate carefully and enjoy your travels, hopefully at a great value price!
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