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Sean P. Murphy | The Fine Print

Beware of those big travel sites offering great deals

Travel sites like Needham-based TripAdvisor often rely on third-party booking sites to arrange your trip. TripAdvisor said it recently suspended its use of HotelQuickly after many of its reservations were canceled.
Travel sites like Needham-based TripAdvisor often rely on third-party booking sites to arrange your trip. TripAdvisor said it recently suspended its use of HotelQuickly after many of its reservations were canceled.(Steven Senne/Associated Press/File)

Army reservist Jon Harrington was really looking forward to his wife’s visit next month to Krakow, Poland’s second-largest city. A financial planner in New Hampshire, Harrington had deployed to Poland as a captain in the reserves.

In September, Harrington went online to scout out accommodations in the city’s medieval quarter, near the Vistula River. With a few keystrokes, he found Hotel Stary, a five-star hotel on a cobblestone street. He paid a little more than $400 for three nights.

But on Dec. 6, Harrington received an e-mail that basically threw all his careful planning out the window.

“We are very sorry to have to inform you that ... your booking for your planned stay has been canceled,” said the e-mail from HotelQuickly, an online travel agency Harrington was redirected to after logging on to one of those big, well-known “aggregators” of travel deals.

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“We deeply regret to put you in this position,” the e-mail concluded.

HotelQuickly offered Harrington a voucher, to be used for other accommodations on the HotelQuickly site, rather than a refund. But the voucher was useless

because the company had no hotels listed in Krakow.

HotelQuickly claims on its website to have access to rooms in more than 250,000 hotels around the world. But the 6-year-old company, headquartered in Hong Kong, hit a major crisis recently when it was cut off by one or more of its wholesale suppliers of hotel rooms, probably due to payment issues.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of people received abrupt cancellation notices like Harrington’s, some as they traveled to their destination. Many travelers posted bitter complaints about the company on various Internet travel sites.

In reply to my query about the company’s viability, a representative wrote, “Yes, HotelQuickly is still in business and we are still in the midst of fixing our issue with our local supplier.”

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Harrington eventually found other accommodations in Krakow by directly calling a hotel and the reunion with his wife is still on for next month. He also immediately contacted his credit card company, which promptly credited him for the amount he spent on the HotelQuickly site, courtesy of the consumer-friendly provisions of the Fair Billing Credit Act.

But Harrington’s jarring and upsetting experience led him to e-mail me with a warning for consumers.

“You shouldn’t automatically trust sites that book your stay,” he wrote, “even when you begin your search with one of those big, trusted online travel sites.”

The big, trusted online travel sites Harrington has in mind are aggregators, like the homegrown travel behemoth TripAdvisor. They depend on hundreds of smaller online travel agencies ( third-party booking sites) like HotelQuickly to actually book your trip.

Aggregators list a multitude of deals offered by others. When you click on a link that takes you to an online travel agency, the aggregator gets paid for the referral.

Harrington doesn’t remember which aggregator he used four months ago to search for a hotel (other popular ones include Booking.com, Google Hotels, Kayak, and Trivago). But he knows he was redirected to HotelQuickly, which had the lowest price for the room he wanted.

“It looked legit,” Harrington said of HotelQuickly. “But I’ll admit that I didn’t do any online research on HotelQuickly.”

Aggregators are keenly aware that the collapse of an online travel agency listed on its site reflects poorly on them.

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A spokesman for TripAdvisor told me the company kicked HotelQuickly off its site on Dec. 5., at about the time complaints about its sudden cancellations began to pile up on online review sites.

“HotelQuickly’s financial and operational issues came to light only very recently, and when they did, we took swift action to suspend their business from our site,” said Brian Hoyt, a TripAdvisor spokesman.

Hoyt said HotelQuickly had credible investors with experience in the travel business when it was founded in 2012 to serve mostly the Asia-Pacific market.

Sean O’Neill, a writer at Skift, a travel news site, said US-based online travel agencies rarely fail. But international companies are a little more dicey.

Last summer, the Greek online travel agency Tripsta suspended business indefinitely due to a financial crisis, he said.

“It’s worth doing a little online research when dealing with an online travel agency you’re unfamiliar with,” he said. “Go online and see what’s being said.”

One good site to check is TrustPilot, which bills itself as “the world’s most powerful review platform, free and open to all.” There were 916 reviews of HotelQuickly on TrustPilot when I last checked. Almost 90 percent of them rated the company “poor” or “bad.” Most are dated in the last couple of weeks, but there are some scathing reviews dating to before Harrington booked his hotel in September.

“I’m lucky I had plenty of time to find another place,” Harrington said. “But it was still a scary situation.”

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Sean P. Murphy can be reached at smurphy@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @spmurphyboston.