Are Online Hotel Booking Sites a Scam?

National Geographic Traveler Editor at Large Christopher Elliott is the magazine’s consumer advocate and ombudsman. Over the past 15 years he has helped countless readers fix their trips.

Here’s his latest advice:

Reader Question: Do hotels really set aside the worst rooms for people who book through an online agency such as Priceline?

My Answer: Some frequent travelers believe so, and I’ve spoken with a few hotel employees who admit to saving their closet-size “Priceline rooms” for guests who book discount accommodations online. But it’s not a widespread practice, and it violates the hotel’s contract with booking sites.

For example, Hotwire has a clause written into its agreement with its hotels that it may not set aside a certain room type for its customers. And Priceline spokesman Brian Ek notes that “hotels working with Priceline are contractually obligated to treat our customers as they would any other customers who don’t qualify for special perks under a hotel’s loyalty program.” He says, “If that doesn’t happen, and we hear about it, our team contacts the hotel. If there’s a pattern, we may remove the hotel from our program.”

That’s good news for bargain hunters who have a gripe about their quarters.

Tell the manager your next call will be to the site you booked it through. You probably still won’t get that upgrade, but you just might avoid the worst room in the hotel.

Christopher Elliott is Traveler magazine’s consumer advocate and pens the “Problem Solved” column for the magazine (this exchange appeared in the May 2014 issue). Follow his story on Twitter @elliottdotorg.

Do you have a burning travel question? Share it with us in the comments section below for a chance to appear in Traveler magazine.


  1. Jennifer
    July 22, 2014, 3:47 am

    Prices are absolutely NOT the same when booked through a third-party booking site (i.e., Expedia) versus booking directly through the hotel.
    I am a front desk employee at a hotel, and our “rack” (standard daily) rate is currently $69 per night. Third-party bookings provide us with 50% to 75% of that rate, and from speaking with incoming guests, I’ve noticed that the booking sites themselves typically charge $10 to $15 LESS than we do (although some have charged guests up to $25 MORE per night than our walk-in rate, despite assurances for the “lowest/cheapest rate possible”).
    However…booking sites charge your credit card immediately. Hotels usually charge at check out. This means you can modify your reservation (or cancel) much easier when booking through the property directly. Also, when you book directly with the property, you are speaking to someone who knows, for example, that the 4th floor is more noisy than the second floor, or that the SE corner of the property is poorly lit at night, or that room 110 has a “roll in” shower while the other “accessible” rooms do not.
    You can also make requests when booking directly with the property that you CANNOT through a third-party site, and one of the biggest issues we have with third-party sites (especially Expedia, which is the worst of all) is that the booking site will offer one particular type of room (one king bed, smoking) and tell the guest that’s all that is available when the property has dozens of rooms that are non-smoking and have two double beds, for example.
    Also, in many cases, even if the property DOES have a non-smoking room with two beds and you booked a smoking king because that’s all the site said was available, the hotel staff CANNOT modify your reservation, room type, features, or upgrades because of the way the reservation system processes the data (it would void the reservation or otherwise invalidate it).
    While you may often pay a few extra dollars for booking directly with the property, I recommend it highly – because you are much more likely to get EXACTLY what you want when you’re speaking to someone that actually works where you are wanting to stay.

  2. Sarah J. Cross
    South Carolina
    May 14, 2014, 12:03 am

    I’ve never had this problem and have used booking services 15 – 20 times over the past two years.

    …and Jack Therion, the prices are not the same. Booking services DO offer decent discounts.

  3. Jack Therion
    May 8, 2014, 7:21 pm

    Or you know, you could just book directly with the hotel.

    The price is exactly the same, and the hotel staff won’t have the same misgivings about you.

  4. F altman
    Los angeles
    May 7, 2014, 11:48 am

    We had this experience last year when we went to boston and stayed at the liberty hotel booking it through priceline. They gave us a closet room with a bed not big enough to hold two adults so we had to sleep at opposite ends. The bathroom was so small. One upright chair and a table. Minimal things crammed in the room . A terrible way to start our vacation. After traveling 10’hours, it has horrid. For a lot of $$$. It was booked weeks in advance.

  5. Christine Jeffrey's
    May 7, 2014, 4:42 am

    Hi a goad also for online booking I booked a ensuing room for this year with them, to see later on in the comments from guest from the hotel all rooms share bathrooms and in the statement from agora I was getting a ensuing, so not only little companies do this so do the big ones.and it’s still being cancelled booking advice always check guest feed back on places.