When you see what looks like a great travel offer—but you know nothing about the website that offers it—you’d obviously like some way to get a fix on that site. One reader recently put it this way: “While searching for tickets, I found a site with some good deals, but I’d never heard of it. Is it a reliable, trustworthy site?” The quick answer: If it’s an obscure site, you’ll have a tough time finding out much about it.
Most small online travel sellers are intermediaries between customers and the suppliers who actually perform the service—airlines, hotels, cruise lines, tour operators, and such. It seems to me that “reliable” and “trustworthy” cover several different aspects of what you can expect from such an intermediary:
- At a minimum, you expect honest representation of the services it sells, scrupulous handling of your payments, timely issuance of tickets and other documents necessary for your trip, and timely issuance of any refunds you might be due.
- In most cases, you also expect the agency to notify you of any major changes in the services you’ve bought—schedules, room classes, cruise ports visited, whatever. And you expect the agency to help you fix any problems that might arise before or during your trip.
With a retail office-based agency, where you deal with agents face-to-face rather than online, you can also expect expert advice and counsel about any aspect of your trip, from destination choice to what clothes to pack to the best places to shop. However, you aren’t likely to get much of that from an online source.
…But tough to measure
Defining reliable and trustworthy is a lot easier than telling you how to assess how well any given website measures up to your definition. I can state quite surely that you won’t find any official or even unofficial set of “ratings” that does the trick. Instead, you have to rely on the few meager clues you have available.
- Where is the first place you’d look for reviews of online travel sites? Online, of course. The “Where to Buy Travel Online” page of Travelsites currently posts reviews of 14 online travel-selling sites, with several others listed but still awaiting content. Available reviews are fairly comprehensive; the problem is the limited current coverage.
- Various publications have also reviewed sites (several business and computer mags, for example), but all of the reviews I’ve seen cover just the very largest players.
- You’d think that one or more of the sites that compile traveler-based reviews, such as TripAdvisor, Hotel Shark, or IgoUgo, would also include ratings of online sites, but so far I haven’t found any that do. Nor does the more general Eopinions.com.
- Lacking a broad base of available customer experience, your best window on overall performance is the Better Business Bureau (BBB). A “BBBOnline Reliability Seal” on an online site indicates compliance with BBB’s standards of good business conduct. And if a site doesn’t display that icon, you can always make a specific inquiry.
- You’re probably safe by dealing with a giant, nationally recognized site, such as Expedia, Orbitz, and Travelocity. Their customers enjoy the backup of a large organization in the event of a problem, as well as some volume price concessions.
- With a more obscure site, the important membership to check is the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA), one of the industry’s leading trade associations and one of the few associations in any industry that maintains an active consumer affairs office. But lots of otherwise perfectly acceptable online sites don’t belong to ASTA.
Sadly, industry reputation means very little. I’ve been following this business for more than 40 years, and many of the biggest failures I’ve seen have been of companies that were widely regarded as “reliable” right up to the day they folded.
For that reason, I’m not about to go out on a limb and recommend any site as “reliable” or “trustworthy.” I really don’t want to get sued because a site I recommended failed to deliver a promised ticket. Instead, I’ll tell you as much as I can about any of them I cover, but I have to stop short of a hard recommendation. I wish it weren’t that way, but, sadly, it is.
So it’s back to “caveat emptor” as your key strategy. Do whatever checking you can, but be careful. Pay with a credit card; insist on a timetable for delivery of tickets and documents; ask for a physical location if you can’t find one on a website. Buy travel insurance to cover big up-front payments. Try to avoid buying from sites outside the U.S., where getting relief through small claims court is virtually impossible. Be willing to pay a bit more for the assurance of dealing with one of the better-known giant companies.