Grant Bradley's Budapest apartment fails to deliver on its online promises.
News that booking services — mostly trading exclusively online — generated an increasing number of complaints to the Commerce Commission during the past year comes as no surprise.
More consumers than ever are complaining to the commission about being misled about the quality and/or nature of travel services, such as accommodation booked online.
My wife and I had an unfortunate experience last month in Budapest when we turned up at a so-called apartment we'd booked through Booking.com.
Though we blame ourselves for turning down our usually rigorous "if it seems too good to be true ..." filter and not doing a bit more research, we felt let down. We and our two big bags could barely fit into Stars and Lights Parliament, a one-room dive with a fold-out sofa bed, which, when deployed, was less than a metre away from the kitchenette and centimetres away from the toilet through a paper-thin folding door.
The $423 price for three nights was lowish, but not alarmingly out of whack with other properties in a city which has lots of good quality affordable accommodation. However, we had overlooked vital clues.
First clue: Pictures mainly showed the many attractions and lively restaurant scene around it and not many of what was described as a "cosy one-room studio apartment".
Second clue: One picture inside the apartment had a mirror in the shot, which showed just how tiny the place was. In our excitement we missed that photo, which was accurately captioned: "Space for everyone to be together."
Third clue: There was no mention of the floor area for our budget studio. The overall listing details for three apartments in the building mentioned 30sq m for one of them, about the same size as a good hotel room. I've knocked up a couple of 10sq m buildings and know the total area of the Stars and Lights room was no bigger.
Fourth clue: No sign of negative reviews.
The listing boasted a host of other features like satellite TV, (we didn't stick around long enough to test that claim) and a long list of appliances that would have filled half a Harvey Norman. That also gave us a false sense of comfort. Included was a washing machine. We asked the embarrassed student who worked for the apartment company where it was; she said there wasn't one. The listing also boasted a view. That would have been of the corridor outside through a tiny window that didn't open in 30C-plus heat.
It took us minutes to decide we were out of there, so we fired up the laptop and — fortunately — the advertised Wi-Fi worked. Booking.com's website has a handy feature which finds accommodation near where you are.
We did, and rather than book through the site, we walked a few hundred metres to The Magazine Hotel & Apartments, rocked up to the friendly receptionist and took a huge, beautifully furnished room directly. It meant no one had to pay any online travel agent (OTA) a commission, typically around 20 per cent.
We paid just $25 more a night at The Magazine, which had a grandstand view of St Stephen's Basilica, one of Budapest's great buildings.
The bathroom was bigger than the place we'd just left after agreeing to pay $260 in cash to forget the whole sorry business. Still dubious about that.
Theoretically, Stars and Lights was still ours for three nights although the "receptionist" did text us later that afternoon to check whether we'd left the key in a drop box. We had. We put that blip quickly behind us in an otherwise fantastic trip, which did include other good accommodation through Booking.com.
The company tells me it encourages providers to ensure information is accurate "in addition to property visits, regular checks and relationship-building". Those inspectors must have travelled light to our budget studio.
We have used traditional bricks and mortar agents for more complex trips with our kids. We'd have felt a bit embarrassed asking an agency to do the small amount of booking needed for our trip to Europe (without kids) but know that any self-respecting traditional agent wouldn't put a client in the shoebox we signed up for.