— -- When a couple walked into the Flamingo Inn in Daytona Beach, Florida, during the city’s 74th annual Bike Week and said they had a reservation for two nights at a rate of $79, hotel owner Merle Kappelmann was caught off guard.
“The rates are around $200 a night at that time,” Kappelmann said. “We were really shocked and thought, ‘Oh, my gosh. We don’t have a room for them and look at the rate that they have.’”
Kappelmann said when she checked the couple’s reservation, it showed that the room had not been booked with the hotel. It was reserved through ReservationCounter.com, an online agency Kappelmann said she had never heard of until then.
“After that, there were more people,” she said, seven couples in all who showed up saying they had a reservation that didn't show up with the Flamingo Inn.
One couple was Kevin Childress and his wife, who had driven down from Baltimore, Maryland. Childress told ABC News that he thought he booked his room directly with the Flamingo Inn when he called a reservation number from what he said appeared to be the official hotel website. He failed to notice that his email confirmation wasn’t sent by the hotel and he learned too late that it was from a third-party site.
“They were enraged,” Kappelmann said.
Katherine Lugar, the president and CEO of American Hotel and Lodging Association (AHLA), said there have been an alarming uptick in complaints from consumers who say they believed they were booking with a hotel, only to find out later that they had given their information to a third-party agency called ReservationCounter.com.
“We really started to hear about the problem a few years ago, but in recent times, it has absolutely skyrocketed,” Lugar said.
Kappelmann said ReservationCounter.com told her that it experienced a system error that misdirected the Flamingo Inn bookings to a different hotel.
“It was a mistake,” Kappelmann said. “A glitch in the system, you know? They promised that they have our problem solved and I believe them.”
Kappelmann pointed out that all the trouble could have been avoided if the couple had not booked with a third party and dealt with the hotel directly.
Today, 14 percent of all hotel rooms sold are booked online, according to TravelClick.com, a hospitality industry research company, which amounts to about $22.8 billion a year. The majority of these rooms are reserved through online travel agencies like Expedia.com, Priceline.com and Booking.com, which get their inventory from hotels and other resources.
But there is also a second tier of booking sites affiliated with the big agencies also offering hotel rooms for sale, and this is where Lugar said consumers can run into trouble.
“Many of them actually look a lot like the hotel sites. But, in fact, they’re not,” she said.
These third-party websites show up in search results and as paid ads, and when consumers book a room through them, often unwittingly, common complaints with the reservations include confusing cancellation and refund policies, ignoring requests for disabled or family accommodations and lost or mis-booked reservations, according to the AHLA.
Almost 2.5 million potentially confusing bookings are made on third-party sites each year, according to the AHLA.