LOS ANGELES—Still need to buy holiday flights or find a room for New Year’s Eve? If you search online, you’ll notice some of the top results will be online travel agencies and third party booking sites. They may claim to offer the best deals, which are hassle-free.
“Booking your flight or hotel room online through a third party, not the hotel or airline itself, may have advantages,” says Steve McFarland, President & CEO of Better Business Bureau of Los Angeles & Silicon Valley. “But there are also risks. While there are many legitimate online booking sites, like those that are Better Business Bureau (BBB) Accredited, there are also some bad actors out there that may try to take advantage of travelers.”
So far in 2016, consumers have filed 2,284 complaints with BBB about online travel agencies—a 28% increase from last year. The leading causes are issues with guarantees, followed closely by problems with refunds and exchanges and poor customer service.
Travel and vacation scams are also a problem. So far in 2016 around 260 have been reported to BBB Scam Tracker with a median loss of $890. Consumers say they booked rooms through online third party sites and when they arrived found that the hotel didn’t exist. Scammers may also try to phish consumers by creating fake hotel websites imitating legitimate brands to steal personal and financial information.
Follow these seven tips to protect yourself when booking a trip online:
- Do your research. Look up a company’s BBB Business Profile at bbb.org. You can see its rating, complaint history and reviews from past customers. If you’re looking for a booking site to use, check out the BBB Accredited Business Directory for trustworthy businesses that are committed to BBB’s Standards for Trust. Reading about a business online can help you avoid issues that others have dealt with already.
- Read the fine print. Consumers are often surprised by unexpected fees and policies that were actually stated in the fine print. Make sure to read the cancellation and exchange policies and be on the lookout for “booking fees” and other charges. It’s also important to check the contact information. Consider it a red flag if you can only contact the business through email and there’s no phone number.
- Double check the URL. Rogue sites may use URLs that are very similar to legitimate hotel, airline or booking site URLs. Double check the URL, hover your mouse over links and make sure the spelling and grammar is correct.
- Use a credit card. It’s best to use a credit card in case something does go wrong. A credit card may offer more protection than a debit or prepaid card.
- Watch out for too-good-to-be-true deals. You may stumble across a third party booking site offering unbelievably low prices. Don’t click on ads or links in unsolicited emails advertising great deals. It may be phishing.
- Call the company directly. To be safe, call the hotel or airline directly to confirm your reservation. You can make sure that the third party site properly booked your accommodations, and also alert the company about any special needs or specific requests you may have.