Booking.com is a large international travel agency located at Amsterdam, the Netherlands. It provides access to a vast amount of accommodations, but also offers flights and car rentals. I had booked a lot of hotels via Booking.com and never had problems. They claim their mission to be ‘to make it easier for everyone to experience the world‘. The reality looks totally different.
With two friends and their child I wanted to fly to Nicaragua in March 2023. It was in the end of the Corona pandemic and the first chance after a long time for one of them to see his family in Nicaragua. It was also the first chance for their child to see the home country of his father. It was not simply a vacation, it was a special trip. They had already booked a flight chain with Air France from FRA via CDG and PTY to MGA on Booking.com. Therefore I booked the same flights on the same platform. What could probably go wrong?
Booking.com – the .com stands for complaints
Obviously quite a lot. If you look up Booking.com on Google you’ll find an impressive amount of low-score ratings. Many people claim massive problems with Booking.com. There is also a Facebook group named ‘Booking.com – unhappy customers‘ with nearly 7,000 members. And even the Wikipedia article lists a lot of problems. We could have known better, but sometimes you have to learn things the hard way.
Booking.com – whom are you dealing with?
You’re visiting Booking.com and booking a flight. You believe that you are closing a contract with a Dutch company located at the Herengracht in the heart of Amsterdam, the Netherlands. But you’re wrong and you can find the first indication when looking into the Terms and Conditions of Booking.com:
‘When you make a Booking, it’s directly with the airline. We’re not a ‘contractual party’ to your Booking. When booking, you enter into (i) an Intermediation Contract with the Third-Party Aggregator (for the ticket) and (ii) a Contract of Carriage with the airline (for the Flight itself). (…)
We act solely as the Platform and are not involved in the Third-Party Terms. We are not responsible for your ticket or any extras you may buy and (to the fullest extent permitted by law) have no liability to you in relation to your Booking.’– Booking.com, Terms and Conditions
When booking on Booking.com you don’t close a contract with Booking.com. In my case I closed two contracts, one with Air France for the flight and one with a suspicious ‘third-party aggregator‘ for the flight ticket. Who is that? You’ll get to know when you have to contact the customer service of Booking.com: it is a company called GoToGate, a subsidiary of Etraveli AB, both located in Swedish Uppsala. That’s quite funny as when something goes wrong Germans often say ‘Uppsala’ to express their surprise…
Is it unfair to blame Booking.com for problems caused by GoToGate or Etraveli? Not really. They all belong to a company called Booking Holdings located at Norwalk, Connecticut, USA. It is one big group of enterprises. And if you want to avoid using their services, you should also know that companies like Kayak, Priceline.com, Cheapflights.com, Rentalcars.com and momondo are also part of this dark family.
The vicious circle created by Booking.com
On September 14th, 2022, I booked the flights, on November 18th, 2022, the pain began. Air France had cancelled the middle flight from CDG to PTY. We had been automatically re-booked on a flight the next day. But Air France had only changed one flight in the complete flight chain – it was obvious for everyone that the booking now wouldn’t work anymore and had to be changed.
Typically this is no problem. You contact your travel agency and get new flight dates. But not with GoToGate/Booking.com: they told us to call Air France directly to change the booking. When I called Air France they told me that as we had booked via an agency only this agency can change the flight booking. But GoToGate/Booking.com didn’t change their position, they simple declined to call Air France themselves on the special hotline for agencies to resolve the issue. It was a horrible vicious circle I did several times.
‘This is with reference to your email that, Your tickets are under airlines control and are exchanged by airlines. Hence we request you to contact the airline directly for assistance.’– GoToGate for Booking.com
‘Since your bookings were made through a travel agency, all types of enquiries, requests for changes, cancellations and other modifications should be addressed exclusively to the original travel agency. We would therefore like to ask you to contact your travel agency directly for information on your request.’– Air France
After a lot of loops GoToGate/Booking.com declared that they will escalate and resolve the issue. But some days later they just signaled that they can’t do something for us and we would need to call the airline. There was absolutely no chance to get Booking.com/GoToGate to provide the service they sold to us. I contacted all available phone numbers (you’re always redirected around the globe to an English-speaking call-center), I wrote mails to all possible complaint management teams of Booking.com, GoToGate and Etraveli AB. I even wrote to the CEO of Booking Holdings, Glenn D. Fogel, as the ultimately responsible for this mess. I commented their posts on social media like Facebook or LinkedIn. They just ignore you and hope you give up.
So what is a possible way out? An option to get to Nicaragua with only little monetary loss would have been to get a full refund and re-book fast with another company. First an employee of GoToGate offered a full refund, but in the next mail they wrote that they need approval from the airline first. That is utter nonsense, they could refund me directly – but that could cost them money. That’s why they don’t do it. And the flight date gets closer and closer and replacement flights cost more and more money.
It’s now seven weeks until Air France should take us to Nicaragua, but I don’t believe that Booking.com/GoToGate will be willing and able to re-book or refund the money. We will just loose it. Selling a service and keeping the customers money while not being able to provide the service is typically considered as fraud. How can a big company like Booking.com act like this? It has to be seen in the context of the post-pandemic situation of airlines and travel agencies: many flights were cancelled in the near past, a lot of claims have to be processed, airlines and travel agencies don’t have sufficient staff and have lost a lot of money. And as an individual customer you’re simply helpless.
Lessons learned: never ever book a flight via Booking.com
Booking flights via Booking.com is a bit like gambling: if nothing bad happens you have a cheap flight. If something goes wrong you loose everything. They should be forced to show this as a disclaimer on their websites. We lost nearly 4,000 Euros because of the bad business practices of GoToGate/Booking.com. It would have been so easy to avoid by just booking directly with the airline. And that’s the key take-away: book directly with a European airline. Then still things can go wrong while traveling, but in the end there is at least someone taking over responsibility and helping you out.
Annex: the chronology of failure
- September 14th, 2022: Flights booked on Booking.com
- November 18th, 2022: Air France shifts one flight breaking the booking
‘We would like to inform you that as we have checked the airline has exchanged the ticket, that means they have took control over this reservation. Since this reservation under airline control, we request you to contact the airline directly to make any changes or modifications to this reservation.’– GoToGate for Booking.com / November 19th, 2022
‘Please note that as tickets are exchange. We request you to contact airline.’– GoToGate for Booking.com / November 19th, 2022
‘We have checked your request. In that case you can request free of charge rebooking or cancellation of the flight. In case of rebooking please contact us by phone.’– GoToGate for Booking.com / November 21st, 2022
‘Thank you for your email. Sorry for the inconvenience, Would request you to contact the airline directly for rebooking as the control of the ticket is not with us hence we cannot make any changes to your booking . The ticket status is “EXCHANGE” hence we are not authorized to make changes . We can only make changes if ticket status is “OPEN”.’– GoToGate for Booking.com / November 21st, 2022
A new hope: Booking.com wants to take over responsibility and resolve the issue:
‘Please contact us again per phone to give us the new dates that you wish and we will send it to our support team to contact the airline and resolve it with them.– GoToGate for Booking.com / November 21st, 2022
We apologize for the long waiting time and thank you for your patience and understanding.’
‘We understand your concern, However as checked booking is already escalated to the concerned team for workaround and to take rebooking authorization from airline. Kindly wait for an update.’– GoToGate for Booking.com / December 3rd, 2022
‘We understand your concern and would like to inform you that your booking has already been forwarded to our relevant department. Once we get information from the team we will surely notify you about the same.
This generally does not take this long but due to the heavy work flow it is taking longer that usual. We do apologize for the inconvenience caused to you.
We thank you for your patience and understanding in this challenging time. Please feel free to contact for the further assistance.’– GoToGate for Booking.com / December 14th, 2022
Hope is gone: in the new year Booking.com is giving up and again redirecting me to the airline:
‘This is with reference to your email that, Your tickets are under airlines control and are exchanged by airlines. Hence we request you to contact the airline directly for assistance.’– GoToGate for Booking.com / January 4th, 2023
‘As we already informed, we have no possibility to change the flight, we have sent case for further processing and received the answer that we can not make changes, in this case, we are unable to support you.
We kindly ask you to call the airline, because the flight is under Airline’s control.’– GoToGate for Booking.com / January 5th, 2023
Booking.com offers a full refund or a re-booking.
‘Regarding your request, we would like to inform you that your flight was affected with Schedule change. (..) We would like to inform you that you can cancel your reservation with full refund, or you can call us to find you another alternative for your flight free of charge.’– GoToGate for Booking.com / January 5th, 2023
Finally I was giving up, requesting a refund. But now the refund needs authorization from the airline…
‘We would like to inform you that we need the authorization from airline to process the refund. We will request you to kindly wait if we will receive the authorization will notify you for the same. We apologize for the inconvenience this may cause you.’– GoToGate for Booking.com / January 5th, 2023
‘This is to inform you that we have already escalated your case to our concerned team and soon they will get in touch with you in regards to your concern .Would request you to kindly wait and appreciate your patience .Due to the difficult situation with Covid-19, we are receiving an extremely high number of customer requests at the same time as many of our service centers are unstaffed because of government lockdowns. We are doing our best to answer emails and calls, but due to the circumstances we cannot answer all incoming contacts in time. We kindly advise you to frequently visit our website for general information on the Covid-19 situation’s impact on travel and any fees that may apply.’– GoToGate for Booking.com / January 10th, 2023
Surprise: Now it is not GoToGate anymore who is replying, it is ‘Trip.com’. Maybe they’re more successful and reliable…
‘We have received your request that you wish to cancel your booking.– Trip.com for Booking.com / January 15th, 2023
We can apply for a refund from the airline on your behalf. If the airline approves the refund, we will repay the refundable amount once received from the airline. The refund amount will be returned to your original form of payment. Please note that add-on services in your booking may not be refundable. Let us know if you want our assistance by replying to this email.
Trip is an intermediary for flight tickets, meaning that we are not in a position to confirm any refund or processing time. We are limited to mediating the information we receive from the airline. We will contact you as soon as we have information from the airline on your request, and we will do all we can to handle your case as soon as possible.’
‘We are still in touch with the airlines and we are waiting for their authorization. Please do not worry. We are doing proper follow-up regarding the same and will sort it out as soon as possible. Once we get the authorization from the airline, we will update your tickets and notify you accordingly. Your cooperation is highly appreciated.’– Trip.com for Booking.com / January 15th, 2023
One month before the flight there is still nothing done and the case is back in the hands of GoToGate:
‘As you are requested for refund we have already sent your request to support team, our support team will notify you or update you once it is done. For further assistance please contact our customer service, contact details are available in our website under “contact us” tab.’– GoToGate for Booking.com / February 2nd, 2023
Let’s see if the refund ever happens. Additionally I decided to book a flight directly with an airline instead.