Online booking: Common complaints

11/04/2007 3:01 AM

11/03/2007 4:27 PM

It's midnight, and I'm standing in the lobby of a small hotel I've booked in Jerusalem. There's no room at the inn -- and it's all my fault. I've booked the right day -- but the wrong month.

Yes, even the savviest travelers make mistakes. They confuse dates, forget to hit the ''purchase'' button, fail to read confirmations. As the story on page 10J by staffer Madeleine Marr indicates, they confuse currencies.

Travel Troubleshooter columnist Christopher Elliott (www.elliott.org) fields thousands of traveler complaints each year -- about 60 percent related to booking on the Internet.

Among the most common:

 Paper tickets. Travelers assume all their tickets booked online are e-tickets -- but some are still on paper. The flier arrives at the airport without the paper ticket and has no choice but to buy a new, more expensive ticket. (They then have to file a lost-ticket report and wait for a refund.)

 Paper tickets didn't arrive. This problem has cropped up particularly with Cheap Tickets, he has noted. However, as paper tickets are phased out, this problem should be resolved.

 Incorrect data. Travelers input the wrong dates or misspell their names when they book online.

 Auto-filled data. Travelers register on sites that ''auto-fill'' their information -- not remembering that the site has a maiden name or also stores the names of other family members who use that same computer.

 Double booking. When the computer times out or the confirmation doesn't arrive in e-mail, travelers assume the booking didn't go through and rebook -- without first calling the airline.

 No room at the inn: The hotel has no record of the booking. This sometimes happens, says Elliott, because a booking agency in some cases confirms with hotels via fax . . . and faxes can get lost.

So how can you be sure that your own online booking is successful? We asked Elliott, author Peter Greenberg (The Complete Travel Detective Bible: The Consummate Insider Tells You What You Need to Know in an Increasingly Complex World!) and our own in-house experts, and came up with these tips to getting it right online. Sure, some are incredibly basic -- which is why we forget to do them:

TOP TIPS

 Call a human being first, says Greenberg. Airline and travel agents may find routings and fares that aren't loaded into the computer. The front-desk clerk at a hotel may know about vacancies that aren't listed online or with the 800-reservations number.

 Check dates against a calendar before you book.

 Double check names on your booking -- including spellings. Names should match your passport.

 Read fine print carefully. Print it out for easier reading.

 Check policies even on items you think you understand -- like room cancellation penalties at hotels and baggage allowances on airlines. Policies do vary, and you may save money by paying a higher rate at the hotel that lets you cancel or an airline that gives you a larger baggage allotment.

 When booking overseas, double check to see what currency the price is in.

 If you don't see a confirmation page or get an e-mail confirmation, call before you rebook. Your reservation may have been completed -- and if you book a second time, you're stuck.

 Read your confirmation -- immediately. If there's a problem, you often can change it within the first 24 hours, but not later. ''Ninety percent of the errors could be spotted if people looked at the confirmations,'' says Elliott.

 Don't expect a Four Seasons-style experience for a Super 8 price. Realize that in most cases, the best hotel rooms go to travelers who are paying the hotel directly, either in person or via the Internet. Those paying a third party may not get the primo room location.

 Consult user reviews -- but take them with a grain of salt. ''I look at Trip Advisor the way I read the astrology column -- for entertainment,'' says Greenberg.

 If you've booked a hotel through an online agency, follow up with a call or e-mail directly to the hotel to be sure they've got your reservation. They should have your booking within 72 hours.

 With complex itineraries and expensive trips -- even tours that seem straightforward -- consider using a travel agent.

 If you're laying out significant $$ up front, consider travel insurance. You can compare top policies at www.insuremytrip.com. And yes, you can call the company for advice before you buy.

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