A Cautionary Tale on Booking Hotels via Third-party Websites

I’ve said many times that if at all possible, you should book your flights and hotels directly. Any time you involve a middle-man, there is a potential for issues. Obviously, sometimes you don’t have a choice. An obvious example: $300 annual credit via Capital One Venture X Rewards card that you have to redeem via their travel portal.

If you haven’t read my series of posts on rebooking my parents’ flights from Belarus to Montenegro, I recommend you take a look. The jury is out on whether buying tickets through Capital One portal actually worked to my advantage. Perhaps.

All I know is that the hassle factor of rebooking through a third-party was enormous. I would still consider buying simple, point-to-point tickets through Capital One in the future. But I would think twice when it comes to flights with a connection or those that fly over a conflict zone.

In this post, I want to share an experience my family had with a hotel in Podgorica, Montenegro. Their flight to Minsk via Istanbul was set to leave early in the morning. Since we were staying in Kotor (1.5 hours away), I decided to book them a hotel for the last night in Montenegro.

Originally, I used our expiring renewal IHG certificates for two rooms in VOCO Podgorica, located only ten minutes from the airport. But then I found out that I could book a two-bedroom unit there for only $106 per night via a prepaid rate. It would fit all five of my relatives comfortably, and I could earn some points.

Since we paid $98 in fees for our two IHG certificates, it didn’t seem like a good value to burn them in this Montenegro hotel. So, instead we treated some friends (who have very little money) to a weekend at a nearby Florida beach where rates were running at $300 per night. Much better deal IMO.

Anyway, I decided to book this 2-bedroom unit via IHG.com, but then I remembered that I had $10 in Expedia Rewards points. Since the rate there was identical, I decided to go with the latter option. I sent my sister the confirmation email and figured we were set.

My family absolutely loved the hotel and sent me a bunch of photos. The kids enjoyed the indoor pool area that had a hot tub and a sauna. It really seemed like a great deal for $106 per night.

One of the bedrooms

I insisted that they go to a nearby Niagara Falls (yes, that’s the real name) and have dinner at a restaurant located by the water. Montenegro is truly an amazing country I highly recommend.

Everything was great until the time of checkout. The hotel rep went ahead and charged the credit card my mom presented for incidentals. Naturally, my mom told her the hotel was already paid for and showed her my Expedia confirmation email. Unfortunately, due to language barrier, the issue was not resolved. My mom figured there was some sort of misunderstanding, but they had to catch their flight and sign off on the bill.

So, she then frantically called me from the airport and told me about the situation. I calmed her down and assured her that I would take care of everything later. At the time we just got to Paris and had lots going on. I didn’t want this issue to spoil the rest of my trip and decided to pursue it when I got home. That’s what I recommend you do as well in similar circumstances.

I figured a simple email with attached Expedia receipt would do it, but I was in for a surprise. The manager of the hotel did respond and suggested I ask Expedia to issue me a refund. What?! My family did stay in this hotel, so Expedia kept their end of the bargain.

I suggested that they pursue a refund from Expedia instead of me. After all, they are the ones who got paid twice. To that I got a response with an offer to give a refund to me directly. Fine, I told them to refund it to the credit card charged. Apparently, this is against the law in Montenegro. Or so they said. They then asked me for my bank account information so they could wire the money.

This is the point where I should have told them to pound sand and instead do a chargeback on my credit card where my mom is an authorized user. But I didn’t. After I sent my checking account info, they wanted my home address too. That was it. I emailed the manager and told him going forward, I would let my credit card company handle it.

And that’s what I did. At first I got a temporary credit from Chase, which is now permanent. What’s the lesson? Well, first of all, always pay with a credit card, especially when the price is the same. If my mom paid with cash after checking out that morning, I would probably never get a refund from these folks. I doubt there was any malice involved, but clearly, they don’t normally deal with Expedia customers. Makes sense since Podgorica is not a tourist destination.

Looking back, I should have booked a refundable rate via IHG.com and let my mom settle the bill at check-out. Then I would have avoided this whole rigamarole. Honestly, I never doubted that I would get it taken care of in the end. It’s just that my mom was absolutely freaked out by the prospect of me losing $100. I told her my kids would not starve regardless, but it didn’t seem to help calm her down. I kept reminding her how fortunate we were that this family reunion happened at all.

I don’t mean to suggest that booking hotels through Expedia is super risky. This is a reputable company, after all. Just recently, I stayed in a resort in Costa Rica that was booked through Expedia (reservation was made before this experience) and had no issues. I would probably do so again as long as there is a clear incentive.

But in the case with VOCO Podgorica, I should have kept it simple, especially since I would not be the one staying in the hotel. It certainly wasn’t worth saving $10.

How does my family travel so much? We use miles and points from credit card bonuses. See my Travel Hacking 101 post as well as current credit card offers here.

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