By Travel columnist
updated 7/26/2005 4:47:56 PM ET 2005-07-26T20:47:56

Wendy Gore pays in advance for her hotel in San Francisco, but when she calls to confirm the reservation, the hotel claims it has never heard of her. Worse, the booking agency tells her she's on her own. Should Expedia have helped her find new accommodations? And what does it owe her, now that she's had to stay in a different, more expensive, hotel?

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Q: A few months ago, I booked a room through Expedia at The Inn at the Opera Hotel in San Francisco. It was a special deal and required that I pay $531.16 — the full amount — in advance.

On the day I was to arrive, I called the inn to confirm my reservation. They claimed to have no knowledge of my booking; in fact, they said the hotel had been sold out for more than a month.

I called Expedia, and their customer-service representative called the hotel. After half an hour, the Expedia representative came back on the line and informed me I was lucky: The hotel was not going to charge me.

I should hope not! They say I never had a reservation, and I certainly didn’t stay there. In fact, I ended up paying three times as much for another hotel — the only one I could find on such short notice.

When I asked how something like this could happen, the Expedia representative said that rooms booked over the Internet are never guaranteed. I think Expedia just made a mistake, and I don’t think I should have to pay for it.

I did everything right: I researched, I paid in advance and I trusted Expedia. After I made a written complaint, Expedia offered me a $75 certificate to use the next time I travel. But why would I ever travel again through Expedia?

Shouldn’t Expedia take responsibility for this fiasco?

— Wendy Gore, Miami

A: Absolutely. Expedia should have made good on the reservation, especially since you paid in full in advance.

Expedia might as well have transferred your call to Basil Fawlty, the ill-tempered (and, thank goodness, fictional) innkeeper in the 1970s comedy show “Fawlty Towers.” It’s absurd to say you were lucky to escape payment, and the Expedia employee should never have let you off the phone before finding you a suitable replacement hotel.

The fact is, when it comes to hotel room reservations, an online travel agency is no different from an offline, brick-and-mortar travel agency. You can reasonably expect to get an actual room set aside for you — not a namby-pamby IOU that neither the hotel nor the agency honors. (Makes you wonder whether anything you book online is a “guaranteed” reservation.)

“Standard practice should have been for us to re-accommodate the customer at our expense and arrange for a similar or better hotel in San Francisco, not simply cancel this reservation and leave the customer stranded,” said Expedia spokesman David Dennis. “This was an error by the agent that Ms. Gore spoke with when she called.”

What could you have done differently? Well, you certainly could have called a little bit earlier than the day of your arrival. A few days might have given Expedia a chance to straighten things out.

When a phone agent starts talking nonsense, saying things like “You’re lucky we don’t take your money,” or “We’re leaving you to fend for yourself,” then ask to speak to a supervisor. Don’t hang up until the problem has been resolved to your satisfaction. By the way, it’s still unclear to me who was responsible for your missing reservations. But you seem to believe that Expedia should help you solve the problem.

As it happens, Expedia agrees with you.

“Ms. Gore should not have been out of pocket anything additional,” Dennis said. “This should not have happened, and we want to ensure this is made right.”

So, in addition to the $75 voucher it initially offered, Expedia has reimbursed you for the difference between the $531.16 that it quoted you for your first hotel and the cost of your stay at the replacement hotel.

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Christopher Elliott is National Geographic Traveler's ombudsman and a nationally syndicated columnist who specializes in solving your travel problems. Got a trip that needs fixing? Send him a note or visit his Web site. Your question may be published in a future story.

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