Hotel booking travel alert: reservations you make online might be viewed, shared, and used by unknown third parties. These entities could contact you, offer assistance, even deceive you. Such communications can cost you time, money, and inconvenience. It happened to us.
We used booking.com, owned by Booking Holdings, to arrange accommodations for our five-night stay on Penida Island (Nusa Penida), Indonesia. The hotel booking at the Deva Devi Beach Inn was easy – no different than other transactions we occasionally make with the website. We got a great price on a beachfront room at a well-reviewed, highly-rated hotel. A credit card was required to make the reservation, but actual payment was to be made at the hotel with cash.
The trip to Penida was still weeks away, but a few days after we made the reservation through Booking, we received a WhatsApp message. “We are from Deva Devi Beach Inn your hotel in Nusa Penida,” it began. The rest of the message was an offer to arrange boat transport to the island from Bali and car transport from the Penida boat dock to the hotel.
Nusa Penida is a small quiet island about 20 miles off the southeast coast of Bali. Penida is known for its beautiful scenery, beaches, cliffs, waterfalls, diving and snorkeling. It is a popular place for visitors seeking to escape the tourist bustle of Bali to make day trips or spend a few nights. Everyone visiting Penida must make the 30-40 minute trip by boat which departs Bali at the Sanur Beach harbor.
Because I had been researching the boat options online (and having difficulty finding clear information), I responded to the WhatsApp message. Over the course of a few days, I exchanged messages back and forth. One of our specific issues was that we needed to get a very late afternoon boat to Penida on the day of check-in because we were going to be on a different excursion early in the day.
The message exchange was unremarkable but helpful. The ‘hotel’ answered a handful of my questions. I was quoted a price of 650,000 Indonesian rupiah (about $40) per person for the round-trip boat transport. Hoping to find a better price, I continued to look online for other options.
A week went by. As the Penida trip approached, I again messaged the hotel. It had become apparent that our planned excursion was likely going to cause us to miss the last Penida boat, scheduled daily at 5:00 p.m. The ‘hotel’ was still offering to sell us tickets, but because of the tight schedule, I was reluctant to purchase. I sent a message saying we would get to the Sanur departure docks as quickly as possible and go from there.
A few more days passed. We made the decision that instead of rushing after our day trip hoping to get to Penida by nightfall, we would get a cheap room near the Sanur harbor for one night, then make the crossing the next morning. The Penida room would be unused for one night, but at $15 per night we didn’t care. We used booking.com again and reserved a $18 room a short walk from the Sanur boat launch.
On the final day in Bali, we now had no reason to rush for the 5:00 p.m. boat – although we might have made it. In fact, when we got to the Sanur harbor, we were able to purchase round trip boat tickets for the next morning for 350,000 Rupiah (under $25) – way less than what our ‘hotel’ had been offering via WhatsApp.
Once we were settled in our one-night harbor room, I sent another WhatsApp message to the Penida hotel and explained we were going to get a boat in the morning and that we had already purchased morning boat tickets. I also made very clear that although we would not be using our room at the Deva Devi Inn that night, we were paying for it, so we would simply check-in first thing in the morning.
The Deva Devi Inn responded and confirmed. Their last WhatsApp message said, “OK thank you.”
The hotel booking goes bad
When we arrived at the Deva Devi Beachfront Inn at about 10:15a.m. the next morning — confusion. The people at the small front desk said we were “no shows.” Our room had been rented to someone else. There was no other vacancy.
Naturally, we immediately reminded them of our WhatsApp messages. They didn’t know what we were talking about. They said any message exchange was NOT with them. We produced our smart phone and showed them the WhatsApp message thread going back several weeks from the original hotel booking. All of this was done in a confusing mix of broken English and Indonesian. It left us unhappy, angry, and waiting for answers.
A manager arrived and reviewed our WhatsApp message thread again. As we sat and waited in the hotel restaurant gazebo, the manager talked excitedly in Indonesian on a cell phone. After about half-an-hour, an explanation: never had we been in contact with the hotel itself. Instead, after the hotel booking, I had been messaging with a tour agency which has access to the Deva Devi Inn reservations that are made on booking.com. The tour agency had gotten our cell phone number from the Booking info and started the WhatsApp conversation / sales pitch – pretending to be the hotel.
It was this agency that I had been chatting back and forth with all along. Obviously, they paid great attention to me when trying to sell me the boat tickets. But as soon as I informed them that we had purchased tickets on our own, they couldn’t be bothered to inform the hotel of our delayed arrival. The hotel never knew of our next-day, check-in plan.
In the end, the Deva Devi hotel manager explained all of this to us and apologized. Unfortunately, our reserved room had been rented and the small hotel was full. The manager did offer to put us in a similar hotel around the corner for one night — then we could move into the room we were supposed to have the next morning. We accepted.
We did forcefully communicate to the manager that both us and her hotel had been screwed by this tour agency. She seemed to understand. But obviously, the hotel is allowing the agency access to their Booking records – no doubt for some share of whatever profit is made by selling the overpriced boat transport. Just as obvious, there is a serious lack of communication and control between them.
We did also follow up with booking.com. From our temporary hotel, we sent an email explaining what had happened to our hotel booking, and expressed our concern this third-party agent had access to our reservation and potentially our credit card information.
To booking.com’s credit, they immediately responded by calling the Deva Devi Inn (to confirm our complaint), then sent us an email response that said our credit card info was never visible to the tour agency or even to the Deva Devi Inn, since the hotel doesn’t accept credit cards. Thus, we had not even been charged for the “no show” night.
I’m still unclear why I had to enter credit card info to make the hotel booking if Deva Devi is unable to process cards. But I can only go by what booking.com says — and there has been no unauthorized card activity – yet. In all, it’s not exactly reassuring.
And while I can’t really fault booking.com, they obviously allow their ‘partner’ hotels to share the reservation info, which included our cell phone number. What happens when a hotel DOES accept credit cards and can charge the card for “no shows” and more?
Our hotel booking lesson
To sum it up, it is a form of fraud to misrepresent one’s self on WhatsApp or in any electronic communication. And that is exactly what the tour agent did. The fact that the hotel allows it and doesn’t have proper procedures and controls in place to deal with potential important hotel communication is disturbing. This is what we tried to impress on the hotel manager – with questionable success due to language difficulties. Thankfully, the inconvenience was minimal and we still had a great time on Nusa Penida.
All consumers should be aware that this kind of thing can – and does – happen. The only preventative lesson I take away from this hotel booking incident: if someone initiates communication with you, especially electronically, be wary of who they claim to be. In fact, ask them directly who they are and make a phone call to check.
This wasn’t practical in our situation, but it’s the only protection I can think of. In our case, the tour agent could have at least advised us on WhatsApp: “you need to contact the hotel desk with reservation adjustments.”
Finally, here’s hoping that booking.com might use their ‘industry muscle’ to prohibit the kind of activity I have just described. Unfortunately, it seems financial gain is what was truly behind the ‘breakdown’ that we experienced. And for travel industry giants like Booking, more profits for their partners mean more business and profit and partners for Booking. So until there is a bigger problem or outcry, consumers alone need to be vigilant against this kind of deception.
As always, happy trails & more beer. Life is now!
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