This piece details one man and his two friends’ stay at a hotel in the greater LA area as well as our experience using Booking.com. Consider it a review, of both the hotel and that website, based on our own personal, subjective experience.
Today I fucked up by booking a hotel with Booking.com.
Okay, small disclaimer: it wasn’t today, it was actually a few weeks ago. Yes, yes I know, but summer days have a way of flying away, and the next thing you know its early September.
Still, this is a cautionary tale about atrocious customer service that should be to be told.
In August 2015, two friends and I booked a Vegas vacation through Expedia (who are awesome). Since Expedia let us book flights with staggered hotel dates, we decided to fly in 3 days early, drive to Los Angeles and spend two nights in either Santa Monica or Venice Beach before heading back to Vegas for our booking at the Cosmopolitan (which is a fantastic hotel, by the way).
We used Airbnb to find a cool little spot in the LA area right by the beaches, and we were all set to go, until 24 hours before we arrived our host had to cancel.
It sucked, but it happens.
They had told us earlier that there would be a small chance of it, so it wasn’t the end of the world. The host apologized and AirBnb generously offered to give us some free money towards our next stay.
Unfortunately, we were so short on time that we couldn’t find anything in our price range or that fit our needs and didn’t want to risk a long back-and-forth with another Airbnb host.
That meant we had to find another solution for our booking needs.
A mutual friend recommended we go through Booking.com, which was apparently a life-saver when it came to finding last minute bookings at great prices. I had never visited the site before, but it sounded like just what we needed.
So I visited Booking.com.
Now let me tell you, Booking.com does a great job at presenting themselves as a safe, trustworthy traveler’s companion. On their home page, various headers and trust symbols list the perks of using the site: around-the-clock customer service, over 55,000 verified reviews, tons of properties and deals every day.
There’s even a header which reads “We’re here for you”.
In light of all these positive signals, we chose to give them a shot.
Similar to Airbnb, there were only a few options available in the Santa Monica area at the last, and most were too pricey. We did, however, find a pleasant-looking hotel called Custom Hotel, by Joie de Vivre, near LAX. It was listed as a 4 star hotel with plenty of on-site services above and beyond the usual AC, writing desk, hot water, etc. They had a pool, two bars and a restaurant on site. The photos displayed bright, colourful rooms with modern minimalist decor and the price was right.
We booked Custom Hotel for two nights. To our surprise, the room was nothing at all like presented.
Custom Hotel was a dump.
The reception was cold. The hallway leading to our room was like something out of an 80s slasher movie. There were no staircases up or down from our floor. The room was dark. The AC didn’t work. The windows were covered in grime. We were missing clean towels. The bathroom door didn’t close. We used an iron pipe as a clothes rack. There was a one and a half inch gap between our door and the floor. The only channel on the TV was Videodrome, and the restaurant was just a creepy room with a cluttered table.
Some photo highlights:
In other words, it was far flung from the gorgeous listing on Booking.com (or maybe they are spot on, you be the judge):
Now, don’t get me wrong: I have no problem staying in shitty hotels. Hell, when I back packed across Canada I spent more than a few nights sleeping in fields beside the road in just a sleeping bag. Once, I woke up covered in ticks. I didn’t hate them, it was all part of the game when you backpack across a country.
But booking a shitty hotel when you are being misled into believing it will be a luxury weekend is something else entirely.
We were understandably a little pissed, but not sure how to proceed.
Case in point: the first night we were there, we had to ask reception three times for clean towels (twice in person, once over the phone) before we got them. With that sort of track record, we didn’t see how the hotel could be too proactive. It’s not like they could just make the restaurant appear either.
So we toughed it out, because what the hell, and planned on giving a big tell all to the receptionist in the lobby the last morning.
However, that never happened.
Generally, whenever I’ve checked out from a hotel, the receptionist asks us about our stay. It’s a routine that opens up a sacred time where we, the guest, can express our heartfelt gratitude or our concerns and complaints.
When I checked out these were the words I received:
“Bye, you can leave now.”
That’s it?! No, “how was your stay”, “hope you had a pleasant stay” or even a “thank you”. Just “Bye. You can leave now.”
I was honestly shocked. If that’s how they checked out guests, then it’s probably because they didn’t care how our stay was. Or worse, they already knew and heard it all before.
At that moment, we decided to say screw it, and hop in the car and head to Vegas where good times and good hotels awaited. We would get in touch with Booking.com and let them know about this hotel. In our heads, Booking.com was the light that would help shine on this dark, dismal hotel and expose all it’s ugliness to the world. Heck, maybe we could get some compensation or a rebate on future bookings like AirBnb does — we did, after all, just spend $450 for two nights in a dumpster.
So, with that we left LA, optimistically embracing the open road. If you can’t trust your booking site, who can you trust?
That was our first mistake.
Booking.com is evil.
In Vegas, we sent an email reaching out to Booking.com’s customer service, explaining that the hotel did not meet our expectations.
The first reply was great. Booking.com got back to us within a day, and informed us that it would be no worries: they got us covered and were looking into the matter. I provided them with photos and a video tour of the room and waited for the next reply.
That’s where things went downhill.
Booking.com got back to us with the reply that “sorry, there’s nothing we can do” — further explaining that because we did not make a case in person at the hotel when we checked out, they cannot provide us with any more help. Case closed.
Wait what? Really?
Yes really — or at least that’s the excuse they gave us. Even though I provided pictures, and explained that we were given the cold shoulder at checkout and decided to leave rather than cause a scene (I’m an introvert, after all, personal confrontations are not my strong suit) unless a customer explicitly makes a list of everything that was wrong with the hotel receptionist, Booking.com stops listening.
That seemed like a flimsy response to me — more of a dodge than a genuine policy. So I sent them another email, detailing that this hotel was completely different than the one listed on their website.
Now, I’ll be the first to admit I might have used some harsher language talking about Custom Hotel than I should have in that email. I tossed in the words “scam listing” and “this hotel is a bait & switch” and was generally grumpy in my email and part of me was hoping Booking.com could at least acknowledge that there website had a misleading listing.
Unfortunately, that hill got steeper. And boy did the shit start to roll.
The following reply contained elements of shaming and downright treachery on the part of Booking.com.
I’ll take you through some fine points of the email we received from the service agent. For sake of confidentiality, let’s call this agent Hal, because one should never trust anything named Hal.
Hal informed us in a very matter of a fact tone that it was our fault for booking that Hotel BECAUSE if we wanted to stay in quality hotels, we should only book hotels with a rating of 7 or higher.
Normally, I would agree. Anything under a 7 is usually code for crap.
HOWEVER, the problem with Hal’s remark is that Custom Hotel was (and still is at the time of this writing) rated a 7.4!
That’s a whole 0.4 points ahead of their own internal quality marker.
Next, Hal mentioned that we should have read ALL the review for the hotel since there were quite a few in the area of 5.0. Clearly, this meant that the hotel was a piece of crap.
Unfortunately, many of those reviews appeared after we booked, and none of them did much to change the apparently “aggregated” rating is still 7.4!
Worse, none of the poor reviews are in plain sight. Users literally have to go looking for them.
Case in point: at the top right hand of each listing on the site, Booking.com cycles through caption reviews for that hotel.The way they do this is that Booking.com collects two comments from guests: what they loved, and what they disliked. Rather than make the comparison explicit, the site only cycles in the parts they loved, not the disliked bits, in their capsule reviews.
So at first viewing, it seems like you are reading complete reviews, but are actually only reading the selected tidbits which make the place look more positive.
For instance, hearing someone from Netherlands saying “very close to LAX” sounds like a mildly positive endorsement of the hotel since that’s all we get to read. But when“close to an airport” is literally the only positive thing that person had to say about the hotel, it paints a different picture.
To read the complete reviews, to see the good and the bad, you have to click on the rating in the top corner and scroll down, then find the rest of that review — because clicking on the snippet does nothing. It’s not even hyperlinked.
Even more curious, once we’re actually on the page there’s a fairly even mix of crap reviews and positive reviews. After I noticed this, two things came to mind:
First, it seems funny that Hal recommended we should just ignore all the good ones and focus on the bad ones. It’s like he’s saying we should have known better than to trust the positive reviews. Did he know something we didn’t?
Second, it makes me wonder if there were actually decent rooms at that hotel, but getting them was a roll of the dice. Or maybe simply having a room with 2 beds and no bed bugs was worthy of a 9.2 rating.
Regardless, the implication from Hal’s email was that we idiotically selected a low-quality hotel and then decided to complain afterwards; when in reality, we followed all the visible and obvious trust signals that Booking.com put up about this site, and were deceived.
In other words, Hal just shamed us for using Booking.com the way it was intended to be used.
I sent them one final email explaining the holes in Hal’s logic, my extreme dissatisfaction and a promise that I wouldn’t let things sit.
I’ve kept my promise. I’ve finally gotten around to writing my rant.
All I can say is I hope what happened to my friends and I was an isolated case, and that booking.com is not engaged in a systematic bait & switch scam with shady hotels.
However, honestly, after receiving crap service from Booking.com in the form of shitty passive-aggressive responses, knowing that not all listings are as they appears, and that Booking.com won’t update their listings based on feedback from customers (despite claims the listings are verified by customers), I can promise you I will never use Booking.com again.
Why oh why didn’t I just use Agoda.com like I did when I was in Asia?