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In for a shock?

February 15, 2009|CATHARINE HAMM

Question: I am planning a trip to Madrid this summer and want to use an online travel agency to book my hotel room. Not having used a service like this before, I want to see what pitfalls I could encounter. For instance, I don't want to end up in a basement room or over the garbage dump, so how do I avoid surprises?

Marvin Forman

Rolling Hills

Answer: I've booked scores of hotel rooms using online travel agencies, or OTAs, and I've not yet ended up in a dump or over one.

But Forman can help avoid that check-in shock by doing some extra homework, our experts say.

"Call the hotel -- not the reservations number but the local number -- and ask to speak with the manager or whoever is in charge. Just say, " 'listen, I'm about to book . . . and it's for this price and I want to be sure it's not one of your worst rooms,' " says John DiScala, founder of, a compendium of travel information.

Tim Winship, editor at large of, also advocates the preemptive call. But, he notes, if you don't do that, and you find that you're in a closet next to the ice machine, you can ask to be moved. You'll probably be accommodated -- one positive aspect of a down economy.

"I can't think of any place in the country right now where hotels are running full, unless you happen to be there around the time of a convention or something like that," Winship says. "But barring that, I think you're pretty safe in assuming that there are going to be other rooms available if you're not happy."

And, as with all things in life, timing is everything. Although hotels don't guarantee bed type, "if you get there around the earliest time you can check in . . . that definitely could help ensure you get exactly the option you booked," says Dan Toporek, vice president of corporate communications for

Whether it's online or regular bricks and mortar, the agency that has customer satisfaction guarantees and customer service numbers also can be your new best friend.

But, Toporek says, the time to call is when you're there, not when you return. So keep that cellphone handy and program in the agency's customer service number just in case.

You'll sleep better for it.


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