Travelers are always looking to find the best possible deals for their trips. Companies trying to help us find those deals have sprung up like weeds. Priceline, Expedia, trivago, Hotwire, Orbitz and Kayak are just a few of the biggest sites. Recently, I decided to give Kayak a shot to help me save on an upcoming trip to Chicago. I started with my airfare. Kayak laid out the options, and I ended up getting my airfare without a hassle. I then booked my rental car. For some reason, Kayak provided the wrong dates for the trip. After fixing it, I then got my rental car. Time for the hotel. I found a rate and was taken to a site that I didn’t recognize called Amoma.
The site looked genuine enough, and it was through Kayak, so I assumed that it had to be a decent company. I found a room for my trip. The Amoma site claimed it was the last room available. Lucky for me. I proceeded with the process, then the first red flag appeared. They wanted me to pay with PayPal. That’s odd for a legitimate travel site. They optionally will let you pay with a credit card, so I chose that.
Everything proceeded as one would normally expect. I was informed that I’d get an E-mail with my details. I received two. One was a confirmation of the booking with Amoma. The other was a welcome message with details on how to access my Amoma account and manage my trips. The E-mails seemed typical. What happened next was not. I received a notification from my credit card company (American Express) that I’d been hit with with a large foreign transaction fee from Amoma. No such fee was ever referenced during the transaction. That obviously didn’t sit well with me. I decided to just cancel the reservation and start over with a different service. On Amoma’s site, there’s a simple Cancel Reservation option. I clicked it. A pop-up appeared, telling me that there would be a fee for canceling. The real eye-opener was that the fee was equal to the entire price of the reservation. They had to be kidding!
I decided to call the hotel directly to complain about all of this, only to find that they had no such reservation and had never heard of Amoma. That’s odd. I looked over the confirmation E-mail again. It listed no actual reservation number — just a confirmation with Amoma. I then noticed in the very fine print that it said that the reservation was nonrefundable. In the cost breakdown, it got even more interesting. It showed a 17% charge in “taxes and fees,” which is exorbitant. There was also a 4% fee tacked on for using a credit card. Seriously!? All that, plus the foreign transaction fee, made this so-called deal anything but.
I tried to send the company a complaint via their on-site support link. After typing a lengthy description of the problem, the Send button simply didn’t function. Great. I then started doing my own poking around. I went back to their site on a hunch. I searched for a hotel in Raleigh six months down the road. They had a room, cheap, but I had to hurry because it was listed as the “Last Room” just as my first booking had. I picked another hotel and a date farther out. Surprise, surprise. They had another great price, but it was the last room again! I tried a few more. It always showed the cheapest option — the one that the majority of people will want — as the last room available. There was just no way that was possible. Raleigh isn’t New York, and there are always plenty of rooms a month in advance, let alone six months in advance. Something wasn’t right. I called a couple of the hotels. They had plenty of rooms on the dates in question.
I started poking around the Internet. It was chock-full of a litany of varied complaints about the company. Countless people found, only upon showing up at their hotel, that they had no record of any reservation. When they called Amoma, a rep offered two options — a refund or a new reservation at a lesser hotel farther away for the same money. Those who took the refund were left hanging in a city without a room. Neither option is acceptable.
In the middle of the night, I got a reply from Amoma in response to my earlier request to cancel the reservation. They could not process it because they claimed that I chose an option for nonrefundable tickets. No such language ever appeared during my transaction — at least nothing that any normal person would notice. My guess is that all of their reservations are for nonrefundable tickets even though very few legitimate hotels ever offer such options. The next day, I began to plan my attack by having American Express overturn this charge. I then noticed a support phone number on Amoma’s site and called it. I reached a foreign support rep. She told me that I needed to be transferred to the Cancellation Department. That wasn’t good. Any company that has to have a department for cancellations is a company with which you likely don’t want to be dealing. That rep listened to my long explanation and then tried several different approaches to get me to keep my reservation. I finally told her that she had two options — give me my money back, or I get my money back from American Express and they end up with a large charge-back fee and a ding to their business credit. She put me on hold, came back a few moments later and exasperatingly agreed to a full refund (which ultimately did materialize a few days later).
The deeper question I have is how a company like Kayak can risk their brand by dealing with companies like this? It’s clear from the Internet that huge numbers of people have serious problems with them. My own basic research shows that their tactics are, at the very least, questionable. Several people online are certain that Amoma’s real business model is to collect your money and then gamble your trip with it. How? They’ll book you in your chosen hotel at a later date, but only if the price goes down during that interim to the point where they can make a real profit off the transaction. If that doesn’t happen, then you show up sans a room. If the hotel sells out, you’re likewise out of luck. I did speak with a Kayak representative, but that exchange was rather unhelpful. The rep seemed entirely disinterested in my experience and could only offer that they’re nothing more than a search site for travel fares. That is a cop-out and no way to respond to a real problem.
Amoma is one travel site that needs to be put on permanent vacation, while Kayak needs to explain why it is that they feel just fine exposing unsuspecting travelers to such a risk.
UPDATE: Several times we’ve received generic comments, all coming from one group of IP addresses, that are suspiciously similar in tone all trying to suggest that Amoma’s a great service that worked. None of the e-mails or accounts associated with them can be found to have ever been used before on the Internet. The only time I find that is when they were just created to post false commentary to sites like this one.
I have also been contacted by people very familiar with the inner workings of Amoma and many of my suspicions have been validated. There are some differences. The thing that seems most important is that Amoma is a reseller of rooms dealing with several different vendors all around the world. Thus, they’re at the mercy of countless different companies all with their own ways of conducting business. Amoma really has very little control over the process. My main concern is that the buyer has no idea any of this is going on. It remains an exercise in gambling with your trip. Some will win. Many will not. Is saving a few bucks (potentially) worth that risk to you? I would advise, at the very least, using a credit card that protects all purchases as there’s a real risk of loss here. If your credit card company offers such an option then you at least reduce your overall risk to a minimum with respect to your money. Your actual trip is another matter if you arrive and have no accommodations.