Why booking accommodation online is costing you more

Hotel bedWhen booking accommodation online, the check-out cost used to be the same as the cost you saw on-screen when you booked.

That is still how hotel booking sites work, but sites like Airbnb, Booking.com and HomeAway.com that book personal homes, apartments and rooms seem to be competing with each other to see what costs they can hide from their customers in order to capture business with the lowest possible initial prices.

For those sites, you need to read the whole page for each individual property to ensure you know what costs you are signing up for. This is frustrating, unethical and is only going to annoy customers to the extent that they take their booking accommodation business elsewhere.

My first experience of this, quite recently, was the discovery of the now ubiquitous ‘cleaning charge’ on a property booked with Airbnb. The property seemed a good price, but the £30 (US$39) cleaning fee was not shown in the total that Airbnb charged me. I found out about it only when I arrived at the property. It made a big difference to the total cost and was to be paid to the host in cash. That’s a tax dodge if ever I saw one, and an annoyance and additional cost I could have done without.

This approach means that the property with the highest ‘cleaning fee’ can show a lower per room per night cost so that it appears higher in the lowest-to-highest cost listings.

Like low cost airlines

The problem is much the same as with low cost airlines. People make buying decisions based on the apparent lowest cost. So the airline that shows the lowest fare for the journey gets the customer, and then dumps additional costs on the unsuspecting during the booking process, at the airport and on the plane.

I hadn’t realised that Booking.com is now also competing with Airbnb in the room and apartment booking market. I had only previously used Booking.com for hotel bookings so I was surprised when booking accommodation last week to find that it was a private apartment and not part of a hotel or apartment complex, and that after I had booked, the property demanded payment in advance and had a full-price cancellation penalty. I complained and they agreed to accept payment in cash on arrival – for the rent I thought I was paying plus the hidden cleaning fee plus the breakfast charge. I had to get the cash from an ATM at usurious rates, and they were waiting to collect the cash when we arrived. Hardly a good customer experience.

I searched on Booking.com just now for a planned trip, and a careful read of the fine print showed that the best-priced property did not include towels and bed linen – they had to be paid for separately, along with a high cleaning fee and the breakfast charge. That is just ridiculous, and another trick to ensure that their room rates showed up at the top of the price list.

Read the details before you book

So now, instead of online booking accommodation being a simple process of comparing prices and going for the best value combination for the experience you are after, you have to start with price then read all the details including the fine print for every potential booking. Comparing prices thus becomesa realy pain in the butt.

Checking out other booking sites, I found that Roomarama looks a lot like Airbnb, and similarly does its best to keep cleaning fees, security deposit, the booking fee and the property-specific cancellation policies hidden from the quoted price. Wimdu is the same, with people complaining in property comments about cleaning and bed linen charges. In fact Wimdu and Roomarama are so like Airbnb in design I wondered if they are owned by Airbnb as a means of capturing more of the market.

Tripping.com checks sites including Trivago.com (itself a comparison site), HomeAway.com, Hotels.com, etc., most of which require a single payment however watch out for HomeAway.com because after a few clicks to get the full payment policy for a property you can find the charges for towels, bed linen, cleaning fee, security deposit and Swiss tourist tax. For one Swiss private apartment booking for a week for four people this added up to an additional £150 above the quoted price, and the tourist tax is not optional.

PerfectPlaces.com is not a site I have visited prior to researching this article but every property I looked at included bed linen in the price, and did not have a cleaning fee. TripAdvisor’s Flipkey site also seemed to include all costs in the amount quoted. In future, PerfectPlaces and FlipKey will be the first sites I look at. I’ll review them separately once I experience their booking accommodation  systems more completely.

Airbnb and others need to include extras in the quoted price

Airbnb, Booking.com and the HomeAway group of sites need to include the extras in their quoted prices or their brand value will soon erode, and sites like Flipkey and PerfectPlaces that make it easy and clear for the customer will take their business away.

Hopefully Expedia, Trivago, Hotels.com and the many other hotel booking sites will stick to hotel accommodation without hidden fees, and not join the race to the bottom that Airbnb and Booking.com, Roomarama, Wimdu and others seem to be indulging in.

In the meantime I suggest a boycott of every site that allows cleaning fees to hide the real costs, and especially of properties that add costs like towels and bed linen in the small print.

And if you get caught and have to pay more than you expected, make it really clear in your rating of the property. Only if we all do this will the properties and websites realise that their customers do not appreciate being fooled and cheated.

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