Before Booking a Villa…

A Cautionary Tale: Booking.com

The first story in today’s episode of Rip Off Britain Holidays (currently available on BBC iPlayer) is a warning to anyone contemplating booking through an OTA (Online Travel Agent). In this particular instance it was Booking.com, but you should be aware that similar problems could arise with HomeAway, Expedia or TripAdvisor which all operate in a similar capacity.

The Benson’s Madeira Villa-Booking Experience

John Benson and Christine search online

In January 2018, John Benson and his sister Christine found a villa on the island of Madeira for a very special family holiday to mark landmark birthdays and a diamond anniversary. They selected a roomy beachside villa with a pool and lovely gardens to accommodate three generations of their family together. The rental was £8,000 for two weeks, booked online and confirmed by Booking.com.

Their problems started a month later when the villa owner contacted them to say that as the villa had been double-booked, their booking was being cancelled. By this time the family had already spent a further £2,600 on non-refundable flights.

Although Booking.com said it would find them an alternative villa of equivalent or better size and standard, over a period of weeks the offerings were nowhere near comparable with the original.

Eventually after persuading a customer service agent to re-examine their case file, the family was sent an email with links to a choice of suitable villas. Booking.com pledged that any price difference would be the responsibility of the owner of the first villa.

Favourite by far was a villa listed at £18,638 for the same fortnight. (Yes, I know what you’re thinking, but read on…) Because this was far in excess of the original rental paid, the Bensons double-checked the Booking.com offer carefully. Finding the same villa advertised elsewhere for the same dates at £11,000 – coupled with Booking.com’s price match guarantee – gave them further reassurance that the shortfall would be a more acceptable £3,000, rather than the full £10,000+.

Further problems arose when Booking.com thought the Bensons had booked a villa they had not been offered, because they could not find the villa via their own email links. They instructed John to cancel which would release the dates – enabling them to check on their live system.

This in turn caused the owner of the second villa to charge an eye-watering 70% cancellation fee of €14,700 – for a booking that had only been in place for a matter of hours. Even after having the circumstances explained, this villa owner inexplicably refused a refund.

Appealing to Booking.com also had no effect… The response highlighted their terms and conditions stating that they are a platform linking travellers and suppliers. Their fine print stresses that your contract is with the advertiser – allowing property owners to set their own conditions and cancellation charges.

A Happy Ending – Thanks to Rip Off Britain?

Neither set of villa owners nor Booking.com come out of this account well. At the very least I would expect the first villa owner to use their local knowledge to offer assistance with finding alternative accommodation – especially as Booking.com deem them responsible for topping up the shortfall.

As the Bensons emphasise throughout the programme, they kept expecting that once matters were explained to the parties concerned, all would be well. It is mind-boggling that the situation escalated to the degree it did.

Following the involvement of BBC’s Rip Off Britain, Booking.com looked into the Benson family’s case again. Happily they have finally been reimbursed for both their villa cancellation charges and flights, in addition to being given a welcome £3,380 contribution towards another holiday.

How To Avoid This Happening To You

The key message here is that if something goes wrong, booking with one of the large holiday companies may not offer you the help, support and protection that you are expecting.

We have a checklist of suggestions to work through before booking accommodation online, created for our FAQs page. Chief of these is to book directly with the owner, after doing some research to check that the owner is both bona fide and trustworthy. You should be able to gauge this from online reviews and feedback.

The lack of concern over cancelling the Benson’s booking raises suspicions that in the scenario above, rather than finding themselves double-booked as they claimed, the first villa owner may have used this as an excuse in order to take another booking – possibly offering a longer stay, smaller group or higher rental. If this were the case, you may be able to track down other instances of unethical behaviour…

In the days of social media and online reviews, dissatisfied guests will soon find an outlet to vent their feelings. Make sure you check before booking, rather than once it is too late. Returning guests are always a good sign. (And remember to read the owners’ responses to any criticisms, as these can be enlightening.)

Oh and don’t forget to book your holiday insurance when you book your accommodation, rather than just before you travel.

Our Checklist

 1 Can you pay by secure card portal?  PayPal is not recommended You can pay us with Mastercard or Visa.

 2 Is there a contact landline number?  +44 (0) 1923 853113.

 3 Right-click on an image > search Google for image. Make sure there are no rogue listings. 

 4 If you’ve found the property on a listing site, Google the property name, location, tagline and images to search for an owner’s website – indicating time and effort invested in their business. Booking directly will be at the best rates too. Check the domain registration.  Nikki registered pissouribay.com in 2006. You can track our website development via the WayBackMachine.

 5 Is the owner active on social media?  We’re on , , , and where we post regularly and have guest feedback.

 6 Is the owner knowledgeable about the local area?  Feel free to ask questions.

 7 Read guest comments and directly-posted reviews on and .  We have a guestbook dating from our opening in 2006 to the present, and recently started collecting online reviews. (As it is possible for non-guests to post, also check owner’s responses.)

 8 Are bookings shown on the availability calendar?  Hover over booked dates on our calendar and you will see the initials of the lead guest.

Alarm Bells:
Scammers lift copy and photos from legitimate sites, then put their listings at the top of searches by paying Google, Bing and Yahoo. Look for the giveaway Ad label next to search results. Check review sites for mentions of the website you’re planning to book through in case there are any warnings.

Be careful if the only payment option is bank transfer, and avoid anywhere asking for payment by Western Union.

Be suspicious if the price is too good to be true, especially if you’re offered discounts to pay in one go.

Beware if there is no availability calendar. Scammers will take bookings for any dates.

Cyprus-specific: Before booking a company-owned villa, check their financial status