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Author: A Potato in a Rice Field
Wanderlust Travel Blog of the Year ’13
I have never been one for loyalty in brands, but I can say there is one company I have stuck with over the past few years and this is Agoda.com. This comes partly due to their prices, which generally are unbeaten in Asia, but also I found myself caught in their rewards scheme. With them, I have now racked up 163 hotel stays, and had pretty much no problem, whatsoever, over the years when using them. For hotels we have always paid before arrival and we use our pre-saved cash cards and Paypal accounts to pay online. It is a simple and uniform method and it makes travel stress free and easy. In return we have also been awarded lots of loyalty points, for bookings and quick reviews, and ultimately racked up loads of free hotel stays. In Asia travel was easy, stress free and enjoyable, but now, as we cross over to Europe, we do now miss these simpler times,
When we first came to Europe we continued with Agoda and continued using our reward scheme and our own affiliate commissions. We actually work as affiliate partners with both Agoda.com and Booking.com so every time a booking is made through our website, we get a percentage of booking fee (e.g. click on either of these links Booking.com or Agoda.com before making a reservation and we get a cut of the profits, wink wink). Continually we are offered better affiliate schemes, from other online booking agents, but we are loyal to both Agoda and Booking.com because they, overall, offer better hotel rates. We will always promote what’s best for the customer.
Anyway, when we began travelling in Europe we remained with Agoda.com for hotel bookings as they cover Europe relatively well. However, as we would soon find out, they are more of a middleman to Booking.com as both companies are owned by Priceline and bookings made through Agoda, are actually made through Booking.com. So, a few days into our winter road trip in East Europe, we started receiving emails from Booking.com to say we had been checking out of hotels without paying for the stay. This is where problems would begin.
Apparently hotel stays with booking.com are to be paid during your stay, which is something I had never come across when using Agoda. I did notice during booking that Paypal was not an acceptable payment method, but otherwise I continued to book and travel as always (in hindsight I really should have read the fineprint). Anyway, we’d apparently been hopping through Europe like the Bonnie and Clyde of hotel reservations and Booking.com were hassling me daily to make payment to these hotels. But, given I was travelling, I had to hold them off until in the UK so I could make these ultimately costly international transfers.
So we could no longer pay in advance, which wasn’t a huge deal at the time, but I do always prefer this method for a number of reasons. For a start, we know our budget when hotels are booked before travel. Also, paying in advance avoids unnecessary exchange rates and local currencies where, on one occasion, we crossed the border from Italy to stay a night in Croatia. In Croatia they only accepted local Kuna as payment, which meant tracking down an ATM machine, withdrawing money, and incurring foreign transaction fees. It’s all very annoying.
The alternative payment options also became confusing with Booking.com where some hotels would need card details up front, while others would not. Some hotels would charge the card in advance, while others would not. One hotel even made us access our online bank statements because they weren’t certain themselves.
We are somewhat familiar to Booking.com and have now racked up 46 hotel bookings, although a number of these were in fact fake. One perk in using Booking.com is the option to cancel your bookings with no cost. This option comes in handy with VISA applications where sometimes proof of accommodation is needed for your stay in the country (e.g. China). So we would book through booking.com, print the hotel vouchers, and then cancel for free (free cancellation is only now being added to Agoda.com).
However, cancellation will typically be up to 24 hours prior to arrival time. As last minute travellers we would normally book within this 24 hour time period and, therefore, this option is relatively useless to us. I know this is due to our personal style of travel but, in our 163 Agoda bookings, we have only ever missed one hotel check-in. On that instance we turned up the day after, and apologised, saying we booked the wrong date. The hotel was happy to accept our mistake and changed the date, so we didn’t lose out. We have always found a general feel of goodwill in Asia, where the people and hotels are relatively easy going. After all, mistakes can be made.
To allow us to travel longer in Europe we almost always go for budget accommodation. While we occasionally scrape a stay at the basic branded hotels, like budget Ibis or roadside motels, we also have to make do with guesthouses and apartments along the way. Many of these would be better suited to AirBnB. The first of these came in Bojnice, Slovakia where we arrive to our “Apartmany” which is locked and empty. On the door is a piece of paper with a local phone number scrawled on it. So we find out the dial code for Slovakia at a local shop, and phone the number. The owner answers and tells us he’ll be round in 30 minutes. We wait in the car, in freezing temperatures. He arrives after 30 minutes, he checks us in, and then disappears again until near midnight. At this time he returns to throw a party in the room next door with banging music until 04:00AM.
I can say that this was completely new to me, but it is also a situation we’ve come to accept given the half-assed professionalism of these short-term rentals, and Booking.com. We’re always phoning numbers and being sent on goosechases in search of keys. Generally they are hidden under counters, but we have been forced to call into neighbours’ home and once had to fetch keys from inside a safe. Also, more weirdness includes the letter telling us to clean the room, and take out the bins, or receive a $40 fine for not doing so. It’s just bizarre. Oh, and there was the guesthouse in the Czech Republic where the owners just walked into our guestroom to introduce the neighbours. The just walked straight in, put their coats in the closet, and sat down on the sofa, while we were lying in bed. Completely bizarre scenarios, but they at least make for good travel stories.
With our more recent road trip, in western Europe, we concede and book all hotels direct through Booking.com. We would lose our Agoda rewards, and affiliate commissions, but the complications and stress involved just weren’t worth it. Yet we aren’t able to escape them. We continue through a minefield of mishaps using Booking.com and find ourselves carefully scrutinizing every line of policy. This came after skimming past a compulsory 20 euro cleaning fee, during a stay in Salzburg. But, even with this foresight, we have no luck.
A more recent booking was with a hotel in Pisa where the policy reads (below). “Please note, reception closes at 14:30.” So we duly note this. Then the next statement reads “Late check-in after 20:00 comes with an extra cost of EUR 20 and must first be confirmed by the property.” Thankfully this didn’t apply to us, as we would arrive at around 17:00. The times between 14:30 and 20:00 were a bit ambiguous. It is very unlikely they would stop check-in before most check-ins even open. Maybe we’ll have to search through another safe or call at a neighbours or whatnot.
So we continue with the booking and find their “estimated arrival time” option and we chose “between 17:00 to 18:00” with no problem. So that’s us sorted. We also leave a nice note telling them of our travels plans for the day, through the the Italian Riviera. It was a beautiful drive. But, when we arrive to Pisa, we try phoning the number provided by the hotel and find no answer. We try again, and again, but no answer. We check our emails and find a new email saying they can only help us up until 15:00. So we have been stranded in Pisa. This wasn’t a huge deal really as we just booked a new hotel nearby using Booking.com. However, I was rather pissed when, 3 days later, the hotel charges my credit card. The utter twats. Other than sending an email they have done pretty much nothing to warrant what was near 40 quid. Where is the goodwill. We email them regarding the situation, but no response. Thankfully we could query this booking through Booking.com.
Only once with Agoda have I asked for a refund on a hotel. This happened after being caught in a tsunami evacuation in Sri Lanka where we were pretty much abandoned at the hotel by the staff and we only got away by blagging a lift on a tour bus. A week or two later I asked for a refund through Agoda and, eventually, the hotel agreed to it. Agoda were of great help throughout and worked as an intermediary between the two of us.
Now, with this hotel in Pisa, we hoped for similar help from Booking.com. So we query the charge to our card, and the policy of the hotel, and Booking.com just reply with the same policy as above. So we query the policy, using the definite statements set out above, and, nothing. Booking.com do not reply. I send two emails over four days to ask if they are looking into it and, nothing. They would hound me daily when I skipped on the hotels earlier in the year, but now they don’t want to hear from me. I guess the hassle just wasn’t worth it.
This seems to be seconded by the hard to find customer service to begin with. To contact them it took a lot of navigation through their website, only to come to dead ends and expired webpages. They do have a link saying “Please contact us with your reservation number…” but this goes nowhere. Eventually, through Googling, I found their customer service email as here: email@example.com.
This is our last month in Europe and soon we will be back to the simple, stress free travel of Asia. I will of course return to Agoda, as we really didn’t get on well with Booking.com. But this may not be wholly their fault, where inefficiencies in travel in Europe, such as payment processing, communication and hospitality as a whole, may just not be on par with Asia. I don’t think it is coincidence that most of my rants on this blog have come from Europe, and it’s a region I barely mention. In short, Booking.com doesn’t suit our style of travel (budget / last minute) but they are probably “the best of a bad bunch” in Europe. Generally they do give the best rates and that’s what we will always prioritize in travel. So we are kind of stuck with them and we will be back to the same minefield next April.
Actually I do have one more gripe with them. I really don’t like how they call their customers “Geniuses”, for booking a handful of hotels. We are no more geniuses than Subway sandwich employees are sandwich artists. It’s patronising. There maybe exceptions to this, where some customers are in fact geniuses, but I guarantee the majority of us are not. Stop giving people false hope.