Christopher Elliott: Travelers may benefit from using agent

07/31/2011 12:00 AM

07/31/2011 6:15 AM

For the trip in question, I searched Cheaptickets.com and found the W Hotel right off Broadway. We thought we booked the room, but when reviewing the confirming e-mail, we found that we had accidentally booked the W Hotel on Lexington Avenue — not the W Broadway hotel.

Within less than 24 hours, we canceled the reservation and tried to rebook the correct W hotel. I did not notice the cancellation notice on the screen and the original booking confirmation disappeared from my files. I did not retain a printed copy of it.

We were stunned when we were billed $477 for the cancellation. After many phone calls and e-mails to both Cheaptickets.com and to the W Hotel, Cheaptickets.com told us that billing one night' s charge for a cancellation was a policy of the hotel. The hotel told us it was not their policy.

After much correspondence with Cheaptickets.com and our credit card company, we were told that we had to pay the charge, which we did. However, we still feel that a $477 charge for a cancellation made in less than 24 hours after the reservation is excessive and unconscionable. Can you help? —Beulah Saideman, Philadelphia

A: If the W wasn't charging you a cancellation penalty, then it must have been Cheaptickets.com. But since you didn't keep your records, it's difficult to say exactly what was going on.

Your case underscores the importance of keeping good records when you act as your own travel agent. But let's take one more step back. Given your situation, I think you might have benefited from using a travel agent. If you have mobility problems, an agent won't just ensure that you're staying at the right hotel, but also in the right room. Hotels often have larger, handicapped-accessible rooms that are available at no extra charge.

You can find a competent agent through the American Society of Travel Agents site (www.astanet.com).

Although your case was resolved a while back, I've decided to write about it now because I've noticed more travelers keeping lax records and self-booking when they probably shouldn't.

Using a site like Cheaptickets.com is perfectly fine when you're comfortable booking online and you don't have any special requests. But I've dealt with guests who've tried to request adjoining rooms, nonsmoking rooms and even specific rooms online. That's not what these sites were designed to do. They're meant for the average guest with no special requirements.

Likewise, if you're liable to lose documents or delete e-mails or type in the wrong name of the hotel (happens to all of us), then you may want to use an agent. Bottom line: I think this could have been avoided.

I asked Cheaptickets.com to look into the $477 charge. It contacted you and offered a full refund.

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