Booking a bed: from sites to swaps

From free accommodation options like couch surfing to the hotel booking sites that get you five stars for fewer dollars, we look at ways for you to find the accommodation that suits your trip.
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04.Caution advised

Suss out the suss

Before settling on a hotel or apartment, it’s important to ensure the reality matches up with its advertising. Tripadvisor is a useful resource for those looking to vet possible accommodation options, but it may also be worthwhile to check some of the more popular booking sites like for reviews. While Tripadvisor may well be playing host to astroturfers (fake reviewers working on behalf of companies to leave positive reviews) and disgruntled naysayers galore, booking sites tend to host reviews from those who have used them to book accommodation.

Scam alert

The online hotel and apartment booking business can be a lucrative one for scammers, so care is advised. Earlier this year, reports of scams targeting holiday rentals websites emerged. According to Fairfax, a class action lawsuit is being planned against a bank that enabled the creation of “hundreds of false accounts” on various sites, which were then used to steal millions.

The scammers were able to pull a swiftie by hacking into rental websites including FlipKey and HomeAway, intercepting the email booking inquiry, pretending to be the apartment owner, and responding to the inquirer with an alluring deal. Holidaymakers would then transfer money to the scammer, and be left stranded when they arrived at apartments whose owners had no idea what had occurred.

These scams can be difficult to detect. If a deal seems too good to be true, be suspicious. If the original owner of the listing on the site you’re using has left a contact number, give them a ring to confirm details. Check review sites for any traveller horror stories. And if in doubt, search elsewhere.

A cautionary tale

A few years ago, I was looking for a holiday rental in London. Having come across an offer that seemed very reasonable on online classifieds site Craigslist, I emailed “John Fernandez”, the real estate agent who was advertising it, and asked for more information.

John offered a discount on the already cheap rate, and the amount quoted was suspiciously low. Interest piqued, I dug around for information on the real estate agency he claimed to be employed by. The company number on the letterhead of the quote belonged to a corporation that was dissolved in 2006, and the website he linked to in his signature was inconsistent, listing two different addresses for his office. I checked Google Maps and found that one was a bath shop, while the other was a genuine real estate agency with a name that matched the one he had given me. But when I emailed them to check whether he was legitimate, they told me they had never heard of the agent or the property he had listed.

I reported the scammer to the UK police, but I’m sure there were plenty who didn’t pick up on the ruse and ended up hundreds of pounds out of pocket. 

Left out in the cold

Matt booked into the Andaz West Hollywood in California, USA, online directly with the hotel’s website. The hotel’s website stated that the price was covered under parent company Hyatt’s best price guarantee: “If you find a lower, published rate on another site, we’ll not only match it, we’ll discount it by 20% for your entire stay.” Matt later found a cheaper price on - but an Andaz customer service representative told Matt that the cheaper rate wouldn’t be matched because the site offered member-only deals (even though the only criteria for “membership” was providing an email address), which weren’t available to the general public.

Joe booked accommodation with Airbnb for his holiday in Madrid six months in advance. However, a month out from his booking, the host cancelled his reservation without explanation. Airbnb credited his account with an extra $50 to help cover a potential increase in the price of accommodation, but as it was peak-season, Joe wasn’t able to find a suitable alternative on the site. When Joe complained, Airbnb offered to credit his account with a further $200, but it was too late. As more than a week had passed between his email and the response, Joe had already made alternative arrangements.

Are you covered?

Some booking and rental sites offer guarantees to ensure you’re not left stranded if your booking falls through or isn’t up to scratch. Airbnb’s guest refund policy, for example, promises (at their discretion) to provide guests with a refund or “use reasonable efforts” to find alternative accommodation in the event that the rental isn’t as described, or is cancelled at short notice.

But regardless of the policies of the site you’re using, they won’t replace good travel insurance, which is vital. It’s important to check the terms and conditions of your cover thoroughly, especially if you’re staying somewhere unconventional, like on a home exchange or in an apartment. Check whether you’re covered for personal injury, and if the insurer will cover your costs if your booking is cancelled.


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