Are “unpublished” hotel reservations too hard to cancel?

Question: I recently tried to book a four-star hotel in New York through Expedia’s unpublished rates section, which doesn’t reveal the name of the hotel until you pay for it. The hotel we ended up with was DoubleTree by Hilton New York Chelsea, which is only listed as a three-star hotel on other popular websites. I understood before calling that Expedia has a no-cancellation policy on the unpublished hotel rates, but I figured if I called right away I might be lucky enough to get it canceled.

I called Expedia almost immediately after the booking. At first, the agent echoed what the website said, and that the reservation could not be canceled, refunded or changed. However, after talking to her some more, she finally agreed to cancel the reservation. We received a cancellation email confirmation from Expedia and a reference number.

A few weeks later we checked our credit card statement and found that a charge for $509 had been put through. By now, we had booked another hotel in New York. We called the DoubleTree by Hilton to ask if we had a hotel booking there, and they said no.

The charge stayed on our credit card and a subsequent investigation by Expedia couldn’t prove that we spoke to anybody who offered us the refund, so he had to rely on the written information on the website that all sales were final. He told us to contact our credit card to get a refund. We disputed the $509 on our credit card, but our bank sided with Expedia. What can we do? — Derek Ho, London, Canada

Answer: Expedia should have canceled your hotel room, as promised. It appears that you did everything you could, with maybe one exception. While you were able to get a cancellation number from Expedia, you might have asked the hotel to also send you an email to that effect. Having something in writing might have made this case easier to dispute, once your credit card company became involved.

You also fell victim to the star confusion that afflicts the so-called “opaque” sites like Priceline, Hotwire, and now, Expedia, with its “unpublished” rates. Simply put, the stars don’t align. A four-star property on Hotwire might only be a three-star property with AAA. Pay attention to the amenities listed under the star ratings, not the stars.

It’s highly unusual for an opaque site to cancel a booking like this. Normally, all reservations are completely nonrefundable, whether you agree with the ratings or not. But it is even more unusual for it to issue a cancellation number and then renege on the cancellation. I think Expedia got a few wires crossed.

I see you repeatedly contacted Expedia by phone. While that may have secured you a promise of an immediate refund after your purchase, it didn’t serve you well later. Large travel companies record their calls for “quality assurance” purposes, but generally, you don’t — and therefore you have no evidence of anything a representative tells you. You’re better off sending a brief, polite email to Expedia, asking it to honor its agreement. Here are a few contacts.

I contacted Expedia on your behalf. It reviewed its call records, and based on the first conversation you had after booking your room at the DoubleTree, it agreed to refund the entire amount of the booking.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • Carver Clark Farrow

    I don’t see how Expedia made this so complicated The OP had an e-mail from Expedia with a cancellation number. That should have been a fairly easy conversation.

    OP. I cancelled the reservation
    Expedia: Reservations aren’t cancellable
    OP: I have a cancellation number from Expedia. Its XYZ.
    Expedia.: Ok. Refund processed.

    Plus, the hotel confirming that the OP didn’t have a reservation should have also resolved the issue. Expedia can’t keep money for a service that it didn’t provide regardless of what the contract says.

  • Alon Adar

    I don’t understand how the CC company sided with Expedia when the customer “received a cancellation email confirmation from Expedia and a reference number.” Isn’t that ironclad proof that the charge would be voided?

  • $16635417

    You can cancel a non-refundable reservation. That doesn’t mean you’ll get a refund.

  • TonyA_says

    I thought tne opaque ones are non refundable.

    By the way it is not star confusion. It is star INFLATION.

  • Sam Varshavchik

    Missing from the story is the explanation for where the so-called “cancellation number” came from, and what it actually means.

    Did Expedia, in its response, explain what was the so-called “cancellation number”, that their rep gave out, actually was, and why wasn’t the reservation actually cancelled, despite what the existence of some kind of a “cancellation number” would imply?

    I think it would be somewhat important to know that, at least in Expedia’s case, a so-called cancellation number doesn’t mean that anything got cancelled.

  • Raven_Altosk

    Ok kids. One more time:

    Unless you are prepared to be disappointed,

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    According to the article you can’t cancel the reservation

  • MarkKelling

    I don’t see a problem with the hotel. Many web sites I looked at rate the place 4 stars. I would be happy to stay there. I think this was just another case of someone getting a hotel that was not exactly where they wanted to be. When will people realize that non-refundable means you really can’t get your money back?

    A cancellation is not the same thing as being promised a refund. There are many hotels you can directly pre-purchase a room at that will not refund what they charge you if you cancel. Others will charge you for a single night of a multi night stay if you cancel too close to the date. It is what you agree to when you reserve the room.

  • sirwired

    While it’s nice that he eventually got his refund, Expedia should never have promised him one to begin with. Just because “most other websites” say a hotel is “four stars” doesn’t mean Expedia has to agree. This is a risk you take when you make an Opaque booking… if you don’t like the hotel you end up with, buck up and consider it a Life Lesson.

  • JenniferFinger

    Expedia and the credit card company really dropped the ball. Expedia promises a four-star hotel and then it gives a hotel that it assigns only three stars, it cancels, it sends an E-mail confirmation, and then it doesn’t refund. The credit card company sides with Expedia, despite the hotel claiming there was no reservation.

    Expedia needs to stop making promises and refusing to keep them.

  • Daddydo

    I still don’t think that the general or even the most experienced self taught ” pretend travel agents” have the foggiest idea of how these systems work. Derek paid Expedia and Expedia pays the Doubletree. The written cancellation number is sometimes good enough for a bank card to dispute a bill, but I can even make up a piece of paper that looks like an authorization and cancellation number for the bank, and I can barely type. So the bank checked it, Expedia said we don’t remember (at this moment) and the dispute was denied.
    I am most deeply concerned that Expedia authorized any refund to begin with. For years you have preached that the e-site’s rating is indeed their rating alone. You have also preached that you need to research everything first, spend money secondly. You get what you signed up for, tough that Erick did not like the results.

  • Joe_D_Messina

    “While you were able to get a cancellation number from Expedia, you might
    have asked the hotel to also send you an email to that effect”


    This is a confusing sentence given the facts of the case. The hotel told them they had no booking, suggesting the reservation never got far enough for the hotel to have been notified. Thus they’d have no cancellation number to give. They could have provided an email stating the OP never had a reservation but if a cancellation number and email from Expedia weren’t enough for the credit card company it’s hard to believe anything else would have helped.

    It seems strange the credit card company sided against them. By the OP’s story, they got charged but never got a reservation at the actual hotel. Whether they were going to actually use that reservation or not, their money should have guaranteed a booking. Expedia failed to live up to their end of the contract when that didn’t happen. And the cancellation from Expedia ended up serving no one other than Expedia. It allowed them to double-sell that room while the OP couldn’t even have stayed at the hotel had they wanted.


    I think people need to stop making reservations on opaque, non refundable sites and then expecting a refund.

  • Joe_D_Messina

    I guess in theory you can cancel a non-refundable reservation, but why would you bother? It takes a REALLY nice guy to tell Expedia “Go ahead and keep all my money and I’m waiving my rights to that room so you can double-sell it.” What if something had went wrong with the OP’s other reservation? At least they would have had a backup plan in the wings already paid for. But the cancellation deprived them of even that.

  • Alan Gore

    If you want to convert a travel glitch into an unresolvable wretched mess, always book through a third-party site.

  • Asiansm Dan

    I keep myself 100 miles from Opaque site. Call me a grumpy-old-fashioned traveler but I to got to see my room before paying the room.

  • john4868

    @Raven_Altosk:disqus The world may voted you down but I’m there with you. Until people realize that star ratings on opaque sites are generally bogus, these cases will continue. By using an opaque site, you give up choice and say where you stay plus the ability to cancel. Is it really worth the $5 a night off your rate for that?

  • DavidYoung2

    Let’s see — why are ‘opaque sites’ opaque? Oh, yeah, because if you knew in advance what you were getting for the price, you probably wouldn’t book it. That’s why they’re OPAQUE.

  • TonyA_says

    Following that theory, then the Expedia violated the terms so they need to return the money. Had they not processed the cancellation, then they were fine.

  • $16635417

    Yep! I just checked their website. Its states that Expedia unpublished rates are BOTH nonrefundable and cannot be canceled. There would have been less misunderstanding if they simply refused to cancel the booking.

  • $16635417

    I’ve said it before. I’ve used opaque sites hundreds of times and saved thousands of dollars. BUT….I do my homework on the ratings and locations, don’t overbid and understand the consequences. They’ve never failed to meet my expectations….granted, sometimes I went in with low expectations!

  • TonyA_says

    Raven, it is more complicated than that now. Used to be Expedia did not sell opaque products and therefore Expedia was not opaque. Hotwire has always been opaque, like Priceline. But then Expedia began offering Hotwire’s opaque inventory, allowing Expedia to sell three different types:
    1) pay at hotel reservations (agency model) price set by hotel, Expedia earns commission.
    2) prepaid (merchant model) price set by Expedia and marked up from agreed net price.
    3) opaque Hotwire inventory, usually distressed room inventory the hotel needs to move.

    A fourth product was recently added. Expedia began selling pay at hotel Expedia rates (merchant model).

    The problem is a consumer can get easily confused since the same hotel room can be sold at least four different ways by the same vendor.

  • TonyA_says

    There are times when opaque sites are helping GOOD hotels sell distressed room inventory. But I am not sure you cannot get a similar deal calling the hotel manager and making a deal especially if you are staying a couple of nights.

  • Dutchess

    Why was a cancelation email not enough proof for your credit card company?

  • $16635417

    Actually, in this case for November, I called two of the hotels that the biddingfortravel and better bidding sites report. Both quoted me the lowest rate I could see online as the lowest available rate. I countered with the rate that has been frequently reported with no luck. It’s sometimes easier to just do it on Priceline.

  • JimDavisHouston

    I estimate at least 80% of problems stem from Booking through third party Booking Sites. Need I say more?

  • bodega3

    I won’t use any opaque site, but I will price online to see how my vendors compare. For my month long European trip, I booked through TA vendors which beat any online company but one…which lets TA book them so I did twice as they had more category options than others and paid me. Don’t assume that online pricing is better, it isn’t. I also had better cancel policies with my vendors on most bookings, too.

  • Ali Jackson

    As a former Hotel Reservations Manager, I can tell you that very few managers will enter into a pricing negotiation for a single guest. First, it’s a waste of time. Most managers have a long list of responsibilities which will take precedence over haggling with a potential guest over a discounted room.

    Second and more importantly, offering deals to random callers violates franchise agreements with the chain. All major chains require “rate parody” across distribution channels. That simply means that the guest should get the same rate whether she uses the brand website, calls the 800 number for the chain, or calls the hotel directly. I worked at two different chains and both periodically called my hotels to check rates.

  • TonyA_says

    I suppose you meant rate PARITY. Can you tell us if your hotel paticipated in opaque distressed inventory pricing, and in that case hotwire, an why dumping rooms at low prices to them will not also violate agreements with the chain?

  • JenniferFinger

    Sorry, but I don’t think that applies here. Expedia is not an “opaque, non refundable site” the way Hotwire and Priceline are. It is an online travel agency whose dealings are supposed to be open, and it also does not define itself as “nonrefundable” the way they do. If someone books at a specified rate, that’s the rate it should confirm. If it promises a four-star hotel by its own standards, that’s what it should assign, not a three-star or lower. And if it promises a reservation, it should make one that the hotel or airline can confirm.

  • Ali Jackson

    Yes, I meant parity. Sorry for that silly mistake. Opaque booking sites do not violate franchise agreements because they don’t disclose the hotel name until after they are booked. The idea is that guests get quoted the same rates no matter the distribution channel…but, only when they specifically ask for a hotel by name.

    Regardless, the problem that Mr. Ho wrote about isn’t that opaque hotel reservations are too hard to cancel. The real issue is that many hotels are misrated. If Mr. Ho had received the 4-star hotel that he paid for, I doubt he would have needed to cancel.

  • Adi Zellner

    I think that will change the way people book non-refundable.