Monday, July 12, 2010

Adventures with Online Reservation Systems

The Internet has made it easier than ever before to made travel arrangements online and from the comfort of one's own home, or has it?

I booked a trip for my two sons and myself this summer. This should have been an easy and straightforward enough process, but with both the airline and the hotel reservation it was necessary to call the customer service line.

All the different travel search engines indicated that Continental had the best prices for our destinations, but some of the routing was ridiculous, taking longer than 24 hours for a simply transatlantic flight. I went straight to the Continental website and found flights that make reasonable connections at a very good price. Plus by search alternative days I discovered that we would save $500 by leaving on Tuesday instead of Saturday, Sunday, or Monday. One of the flights had only four seats remaining at that price. Perfect. Book it!

Easier said than done. I signed in with my OnePass number and the system recognized me, saving me from having to fill out most of the personal information. As to travelers 2 and 3, my sons, the prompt told me to Select Travelers from the dropdown menu. The dropdown menu gave me the choice of myself (again) or New Traveler. I selected New Traveler and then proceeded to fill out all of the required information. I pressed Buy, and the system responded with the message: "One or more of the new travelers matches profiles that are already registered under your account. Please return to Select Travelers and select these profiles from the dropdown menu." I returned to the Select Traveler section, pressed the dropdown menu, and was again presented with the choice of myself or New Traveler. I tried selecting myself again. The system immediately informed me that I could not book three seats for myself on the same flight (what if I wanted to stretch out?). Again I selected New Traveler and filled out all of the information. I got the same message instructing me to go back and select the corresponding profiles from the dropdown menu.

Realizing at this point, that any further efforts were likely to be futile, I called the customer assistance line and got a nice young man on the line. I explained the difficulty to him. He suggested trying different things, but none of them worked. Because we were not making any headway, he said that he would book the tickets for me and would waive the telephone booking fee ($60/pp) because this appeared to be a system problem. Great, said I. Then he was not able to find the same fares that I held selected. His fares were more expensive. I asked if he could search my OnePass number to see what fares and flights I had reserved. Yes, he could do that. With the OnePass number he was able to find the flights. I had to cancel my transaction. He was then able to reserve the flights for the three of us under my OnePass number (I had to give him all of the boys' information again), and then I was able to go back into the system, enter my OnePass number, look at my reservations, and complete the transaction by paying for it. Total time on the phone with the Continental customer service representative: 1 hour and 20 minutes.

The hotel websites were equally challenging. Each of these websites offers a different selection of hotels, and when they have the same hotels, sometimes the prices are different. I knew approximately what I wanted: a decent hotel in the Bloomsbury section of London, with breakfast included. I was willing to spend a bit more (having saved on the flights) if the hotel warranted the investment. The peer review of customer comments is an invaluable resource. Better than pictures and a hotel description, these candid reviews are far more telling. Some hotels I had been considering I discarded after reading the reviews.

Three people is a difficult number to book. Without fail, if I entered one adult and two children into the search format, the results would indicate that there were no hotels available. Searching for a room for two adults and one child produced some results. All the hotels would available when searching for a room for two adults, no children. Searching the latter option to get a more global idea of what was available and the prices, I came across the Bloomsbury Holiday Inn, which offered some of the best value for its location. The room pictures show two double beds or a double and a single bed. There is no reason why this hotel would not be able to accommodate three people in one room. But the search engine indicated that no rooms were available for our travel dates. I wondered if perhaps they might have room available for some of our dates.

The Holiday Inn website gives the front desk phone number for the hotel. I have Skype minutes, so I called them up and spoke to Gregory, explaining what I needed. Gregory looked up the dates and confirmed that yes indeed, the hotel did have rooms with a double bed and a pullout double hideabed available. I mentioned the good price I had seen online. He offered me the same deal. But for 6 pounds less: a room booked for two adults, one child, including breakfast AND dinner for two, plus children eat for free at the Holiday Inn. Right location, right price: Book it! We did, and Gregory sent me the reservation confirmation right away by email. When I let my friend Sally know that we had booked our hotel, she was very pleased because she had gone out on a tour of the neighborhood and this was one of the hotels that she was going to recommend to us.

Conclusions: The travel search engine services are good for getting an idea of what is available, and relative costs. You need to invest the time and search alternative dates for the best prices for flights. Search online for information, but sometimes you need to talk to a real person to make the booking.

When one airline consistently has the best prices, go straight to the airline's website for a better selection of flights (if you want to spend less than 24 hours getting to your destination.)

Print a copy of the flight numbers and the fares you have selected and have this ready when talking to the customer service representative, their system might not come up with the same price that you found. A bit of firm but polite insisting can make all the difference.

Again, do the homework. Read the travelers' reviews. People who have been there might have some serious caveats about a hotel that sounded nice in its description. Be forewarned before you book! Conversely, hotels that have positive comments from satisfied customers are a good indication that your stay will be more enjoyable.

Although the search engine websites offer "incredible deals only for booking online," sometimes you will get an even better price when you go right to the source. If you have any special needs, like a room to accommodate three people, you will definitely need to talk to a real person.

Skype minutes to call landlines are a boon when it comes to making long distance calls.

A final note on the rational use of time: I spent a lot of time searching the different hotel websites. In the long run I might have been better off to have booked a more expensive hotel the first day and then spent an extra five or six hours doing translations. It would have worked out about the same in terms of time-cost investment with a guaranteed agreeable payoff.

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