Saturday, January 7, 2017
How rapid technological change cost me almost $200
By Don Keith
Rapid technological change often brings us convenience and benefit we could not have even dreamed of a few years ago. Take booking a rental for our annual family beach trip. Once upon a time, such a transaction was conducted blindly, typically by mail, or on a long-distance telephone circuit.
Now, we are able to not only see and easily compare potential places, with rates, amenities, available dates, and more, but we can book them quickly and securely. It is especially helpful to be able to see photos of rooms to determine how beds will work for our brood, the size of the kitchen and living area, and to confirm the pool is not a plastic tub on stilts. Good stuff!
But I just learned a costly lesson. All that convenience and info may well mask the fact that you may encounter unexpected costs.
I'll try to make this quick, and hope it saves some of you some money. We were pretty sure of the property we wanted to rent. I Googled it and quickly found that it was actually rented by two different outfits, a local real estate company and VRBO.com. The local outfit's website was lacking a bit in design convenience so I switched to VRBO to better peruse the pictures, rates, availability calendar, and other info. Both sites clearly showed identical rates and open dates so I went ahead and began the booking process on the VRBO site.
All was fine until I got to step two and noticed that the total price--including a $250 cleaning fee, a $100 administrative fee, and a whopping 11% lodging tax, all of which showed as additional charges on both websites--was still more than $200 higher than what it should have been. It appeared to me that they may have charged me the "pet fee" though I clearly indicated in step 1 that we would have no pets with us.
So I reverted to the old-fashioned way and called the VRBO customer service number. A nice lady who spoke very difficult-to-understand English assured me my total rental would be exactly what I first expected and insisted that she stay on the line while I completed the online form, just in case I encountered other anomalies. I tried but in only a moment or so, their nice form refused to accept the expiration date on my credit card, even though it is valid and I had entered it precisely as they told me to.
Again the hard-to-understand lady offered to enter the info on her end and get the reservation completed "before someone else takes the open week you want." I allowed her to do so.
"Have you read and agreed to our terms?" she asked at one point.
"No," I told her. "Your web site will not allow me to see them until sometime later in the process."
She assured me there was no commitment until I had accessed and read the terms, which I soon learned consisted of about six pages of tiny print. While she waited, I skimmed it as well as I could and actually saw no issues. It was identical to other terms I had seen from other rentals in the past. It did include the really scary info that unless you purchase their renter's insurance, you cannot cancel the agreement and get any of your money back, not even if there is a zombie apocalypse or the planet is destroyed by meteors. I did not want to pay over $300 for such protection, nor have I in the past, so I agreed to the terms.
Then, when she told me the grand total, it was the higher amount that had sent me to the toll free number in the first place. First, the cleaning fee was actually $275, not the $250 listed on both websites. "The owner probably raised the fee and we just have not updated the site," she told me.
OK. The clock was ticking. Vultures were probably swooping in and grabbing my week, the only one the entire family had decided would work for everyone. But what about the rest of it? Another $180?
"That is the VRBO charge...what we charge for handling the rental for the owner. It also covers our customer satisfaction guarantee. We cannot complete the rental unless you agree to that."
Dumb me, I assumed VRBO got their $180 whether I rented on their site, the real estate company's site, or directly from the owner. I further assumed they had exclusivity and that I would pay no matter how I committed. I swallowed hard and did the deal.
Minutes later, when I received an email receipt--from the local real estate company, NOT VRBO--I noticed the charge was the original smaller amount I had at first expected, plus the unexpected $25 of cleaning fee increase. No $180 for VRBO's time and trouble and customer satisfaction guarantee. Same with the email confirmation from my credit card company that I get anytime anything gets charged online.
I promptly called the real estate folks to see what was what. They were extremely nice. Even apologetic. The lady--in a nice way--told me I was a sucker for going with VRBO and not using their site.
"But I thought VRBO (Vacation Rentals by Owner) was cheaper or at least the same as you real estate guys," I whined.
"Rarely if ever," she said. "They charge the same rates we do plus a fee to cover their overhead and make a profit."
"That's not built into the rate?" I naively asked. "Your commission is."
"No. We always urge renters to use our site and not have to pay their fee."
"Where on your website do you urge us to do that?" I asked.
"We don't. We are afraid there may be legal ramifications."
"Legal ramifications for telling folks that the other guys charge more than you do?" I asked her incredulously. "Oh, and what about the additional $25 plus the 11% tax on it to clean up the joint after we vacate?"
"Oh, the owner must have raised the price and forgot to tell us."
"Shouldn't you make that change on your website?"
"I'll put in a work order but it may take several weeks."
Rapid technological change, indeed! But she did immediately volunteer to remove that charge from our total. I also told her the credit card charge they had already done did not include the VRBO fee.
"They will run the card a second time for that," she assured me. Indeed they did. That bit of email news arrived by the time I had finished my chat with the nice lady. And she remained nice, even when I fussed about how their website was funky and that was what sent me galloping over to VRBO in the first place.
I admit I was the typical gullible shopper. I assumed too much. I assumed VRBO was cheaper (or at least the same cost) as the local real estate guys. Then I assumed the real estate people would charge me that extra fee if I worked through them instead of VRBO. And that if I didn't nail down that one week we needed, it would be gone in an hour or two.
No, I should have told broken-English-lady at VRBO goodbye when she insisted I read all those pages of fine print and pay the unexpected fee. And when she didn't immediately agree to honor the cleaning fee as it appeared on their website. Then I should have verified the price with the locals.
But it was so easy. So convenient. The pictures on the VRBO site were so beautiful. Even when I hit a snag trying to rent online, there was the English-language-challenged lady perfectly willing to type stuff into the form for me.
And for all that technology, I ended up paying $180.