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.