Be careful where you click when making flight or hotel reservations – or it could cost you

Francis Popiel made the worst booking mistake ever when he booked the right hotel on the wrong site.

a person using a laptop computer sitting on top of a table: Look at the website you're on very carefully before booking. Some travel sites look legit but aren't.

The right hotel, in his case, was the Holiday Inn Alexandria in Alexandria, Virginia. Popiel, an engineer from Columbia Station, Ohio, had found the property by Googling “Holiday Inn Alexandria.” But instead of taking him to the official hotel site, the search results led him to a third-party site called

“When you click on this link, it appears to be the Holiday Inn website,” he says. “The photos and layout are the same.”

Start the day smarter. Get all the news you need in your inbox each morning.

He says charged him a “deceptive” $159 fee on top of a $338 room rate.

Don’t want to make a booking mistake? Careful where you click

Popiel’s story is a cautionary tale for the rest of us to look carefully before booking. There are sites out there that look legit but may not be. But you can easily spot them. didn’t respond to messages seeking comment on Popiel’s case. The site describes itself as an intermediary focused on “connecting travelers” to bargains. “As an independent travel network, we can get you the same deals you expect with a bigger travel agency or direct from the hotel,” it adds.

I tried to duplicate Popiel’s reservation. But in the time between making the reservation and his complaint, Google changed its secret algorithm to promote the official Holiday Inn site at the top of its ranking. And while it’s true that’s site does not claim to be an official Holiday Inn site, it also doesn’t specifically say it isn’t. (There are clues, though, including the bright red notice that says, “Jackpot! This is today’s low rate,” and an annoying countdown clock that only gives you 10 minutes to make up your mind about your reservation. Tacky.)  

Soojin Yoon, a spokeswoman for InterContinental Hotels Group, which owns Holiday Inn, said it is not involved in transactions that customers make on third-party websites such as 

“We encourage guests to book directly through our channels for greater control over their reservations, and to access exclusive loyalty rates,” she added.

Five years ago, the Federal Trade Commission issued a warning about sites that pose as the real thing. The agency said it heard from customers who searched online and thought they were booking on a hotel website, only to find they’d unknowingly been doing business with someone else. 

“For those times you’re looking to book directly with a hotel,” the FTC warned, “make sure that’s what you’re doing.”

Since then, the problem has gotten worse. It’s not the legitimate online travel agencies such as Expedia and perpetrating the scam, says Ari Lightman, professor of digital media and marketing at Carnegie Mellon University.

“It’s the sites deliberately set up to dupe consumers,” he says. “They’re becoming more lucrative for hackers trying to obtain data on individuals.”

Beware of “impostor” sites

For example, when Kate McCulley needed a visa to visit Azerbaijan, she went online and found several official-looking options, which she calls “impostor sites.” 

“I came very close to using one of these sites by mistake,” says McCulley, who publishes an eponymous website that helps solo women travelers.

For the record, this is the official visa site for Azerbaijan.

Airlines aren’t exempt from scammy booking sites that can lead to booking mistakes either.

Remember the case of Naomi Poel? The Ada, Michigan, traveler fell for a site that claimed to be an official Delta Air Lines site last summer. Unfortunately, she took the site at face value when it claimed, “We, at Delta Air Lines.” The mistake cost her family $300.

How to avoid the worst booking mistake ever

Popiel, the engineer from Ohio, just wants people to know about impostor sites.

“I would like to raise awareness among travelers of this deceptive practice,” he says. But, beyond that, he wonders why legitimate businesses would accept a reservation through a third party that tries to deceive their customers. That’s a valid question.

I asked. The IHG spokeswoman described the online travel distribution system as “quite complex,” adding “we are always assessing options as the distribution landscape evolves.” 

I’m sure we’ll be the first to hear if it cuts ties with

“Third-party websites are sophisticated these days,” says Adam Levin, the founder of CyberScout, a Scottsdale, Arizona, security firm. “Websites can look almost identical to legitimate airline or hotel websites. Always verify you are on a secure webpage to make reservations or book travel.”

Perhaps the best way to avoid the worst booking mistake ever is to pay attention. If you’re booking an airline ticket, hotel room or getting a visa, read the website address. If you’re not on the official site, odds are you’re dealing with a third party. And that third party may try to rip you off. Don’t walk away — run!

 How to spot an impostor site

Do your research. That’s the advice of Clive Wood, global commercial manager at OTA Insight, a company that develops hotel revenue management systems. “It’s worth Googling the name of the website to see if anything has been written about it online,” he says. “Travelers should also always check the small print before processing their transactions.”

Know your destination and book direct. Type the web address directly — and carefully. Bear in mind that some unscrupulous third party sites have snatched up domain names with common misspellings of the companies they’re spoofing. And they’re waiting for you to make a mistake.

Ask the site about yourself. Here’s another easy way to determine if a site is legit: It knows you. “A big giveaway is the ability to provide personalized, differentiated products and services,” says Aditi Mehta, a strategy director at PROS, a software firm in Houston. If the site doesn’t know who you are, it may be a third party site pretending to be the real thing.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Be careful where you click when making flight or hotel reservations – or it could cost you

Related video: Tips For The Solo Traveler (Provided by Buzz60)

  • a clock tower lit up at night

    Most exclusive Disney spots to visit
    Disney park tickets are getting more expensive, but some experiences come with their own price tags. Here are 9 of the most exclusive spots in Disney.
    Business Insider Logo
    Business Insider

  • a bus that is sitting in the snow

    5 hikers rescued in Alaska after visiting infamous ‘Into the Wild’ bus
    Tourists were rescued in the Alaska wilderness after visiting the abandoned bus featured in the “Into the Wild” book and movie.
    USA TODAY Logo

  • a group of people standing in front of a store

    What not to wear through airport security
    You have to put some thought into what to wear (or what not to wear) when going through airport security.
    Buzz60 Logo

Buzz60 Logo
Source: Read Full Article