How to Book Accommodation Ethically

How to Book Accommodation Ethically So You’re Not Staying for Free

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How to book accommodation ethically from booking direct with lodgings to booking on accommodation sites that transfer your payments for stays promptly, we’ve got lots of tips for you. Whether you’re booking hotels, holiday houses, villas, apartment rentals, or bed and breakfasts, give a thought to the owners and operators struggling to get paid: ask yourself if you might just be staying for free.

Accommodation is an important part of a trip for many travellers. For others, it’s just a place to sleep, especially on a tight stopover or busy tour. But when you plan a holiday with loved-ones, with plenty of downtime to relax by a pool, cook meals with delicious local produce, or spend evenings sipping wine by a fireplace, where you stay can become a really memorable part of your holiday.

Some of our most treasured travel memories come courtesy of owners and operators of small lodgings, such as Marrakech riad manager Jamila, who taught Terence to cook tajine; Maria, who showed us how to make pasta and pizza in a woodfired oven at our Puglia trullo; Carl, the Perpignan apartment owner who took us on a town stroll; and Rusty Irons, our Austin holiday rental owner, who showed us how to make Texas BBQ pork butt.

So it’s hard to imagine that many of those kinds of more intimate accommodations that we all love so much, that managed to survive the worst of the pandemic when borders closed and flights were grounded, could have been forced to shut down, might have got repossessed, and struggled to pay staff, get laundry done and even serve breakfast, because the booking site they listed on didn’t pay them for guest stays for months.

But that’s exactly what happened to many small hotels, apartments, villas, B&Bs, and hostels around the globe listed on the world’s biggest accommodation website. Thousands of lodgings weren’t paid for months, including during the busy northern hemisphere summer high season, due to the site’s far-reaching payment problems. Many are still struggling to get paid. You can read this story and my editorial in The Guardian about the whole mess.

“Oh no…” you’re probably thinking. “What’s this travel writer asking us to do now?” Once upon a time when you booked accommodation for a trip, all you thought about was the cost, the location, if it looked nice, was it clean, did it offer breakfast, etc. Then travel writers like us started asking you all to consider whether the accommodation was eco-friendly, was it sustainable and responsible, did it give back to its community, and so on.

Now we’re asking you to think about whether that online payment you’re making when you book a stay on an accommodation website is actually reaching the property you’re booking in a timely manner. Because, if the property isn’t being paid for months, you could essentially be staying for free when you stay. You have to ask yourself: is it ethical to book a stay on a site if you know that they’re not paying the property you’ll be staying at?

As a travel writer and guidebook author of decades experience, I’ve got lots of tips for you on how to book accommodation ethically, whether you’re booking directly with lodgings; whether you prefer to use accommodation booking sites and online travel agents (OTAs); and even if you still prefer to use the booking site notorious for not paying accommodation partners for months this year. There are ways to make all bookings ethically.

Of course, operating ethically as a travel company involves more than making timely payments, it requires honesty, transparency and fairness in dealings; prompt explanations and apologies when things go wrong; speedy fixes; people-centred communications not auto-replies from AI chat-bots; quick refunds and, if warranted, compensation. Worth keeping in mind when you’re reading the TrustPilot reviews. More on that below.

Before I share my tips to how to book accommodation ethically, I have a favour to ask. Grantourismo is reader-funded. If you find our stories and guides helpful, please consider supporting Grantourismo. You could make a one-off donation to our epic cookbook project on Patreon; buy a handcrafted KROK, the best mortar and pestle ever (we earn a small commission from purchases); or browse our Grantourismo shop for gifts designed with Terence’s images.

If you’re planning a trip, you can support our work here by using our affiliate partner links. We may earn a commission but you won’t pay extra if you use our links to buy travel insurance, book flights with CheapOair, Kiwi.com or Etihad; book accommodation on links in this post; hire a rental car; book a transfer, tour or passes to attractions on Klook or Get Your Guide; buy train tickets on RailEurope, bus and train tickets on 12Go; or book a cooking class or meal with locals on EatWith.

Another option is to consider using our links to buy something on Amazon, such as these cookbooks for culinary travellers, James Beard award-winning cookbooksclassic cookbooks for serious cooks, and gifts for Asian food lovers and picnic lovers, for which we also earn a commission. Now let me share my tips to how book accommodation ethically, so you’re confident that the property you’re staying at is actually getting paid for your stay.

How to Book Accommodation Ethically from Booking Direct to Using Booking Sites That Pay

These are our tips to how to book accommodation ethically, depending on how you’re booking – whether you’re booking direct with the hotel or you prefer to use accommodation booking websites and online travel agents (OTAs).

Booking Direct with the Accommodation

The only way that you can really be sure that the payment you make for your stay is going to the accommodation you’re staying at is to book directly with the accommodation and pay via their website or at the property itself.

That’s all fine if the property has a website and/or has facilities to accept a debit or credit card, which is how most travellers prefer to pay. If the property can’t and you prefer not to use cash, ask what other payment methods they might offer or suggest a transfer service, such as Wise or Moneygram.

If you’re not comfortable with that and still prefer to use an accommodation booking site or OTA – an online travel agent; a site that also offers flights, transfers, tours etc – then either use a booking site that pays their listed properties on time or choose the option to book on the site but pay at the property if that option is available.

Our Tips:

Contact the property directly to ask about their preferred payment options. If you decide you still prefer to use a booking site, ask the property which site they prefer that you use.

If you prefer to book accommodation on one of your favourite booking sites or OTAs, such as Agoda, Booking, WotifExpedia, ebookers, lastminute.com etc, choose the option to book on the site but pay at the property. That way, the lodging collects your payment and pays commissions to the site.

Booking on Accommodation Websites and OTAs

Many travellers prefer to book a stay on an accommodation booking website or OTA than directly with the lodging itself. Other than the ability to pay with a credit card, there are a few more reasons for this, including a great package deal that properties can’t offer; lodgings that can’t be booked otherwise; a lower price; flexibility; free cancellations; and a loyalty programme.

Our Tips:

Go for it. We get it. Just make sure that the site you are booking on is an ethical operator. How can you know that? The easiest way to do just that is to check their rating and read reviews on TrustPilot, a reputable consumer review website.

More tips and recommendations below for those of you who prefer to use booking sites and OTAs, so you’re booking accommodation ethically.

Tempting Package Deals

Some accommodation booking websites have evolved into online travel agents, and can offer great value holiday packages that might include loads of perks, from transfers, welcome drinks, meals, and massages, for little more than it costs to booking the accommodation on the property’s website.

As we said, go for it, but do check their TrustPilot score. For instance, an ethical accommodation booking site that we recommend, which has evolved into an OTA, offering packages that include all kinds of perks, as well as flights if you wish, is Luxury Escapes. The site has a TrustPilot score of 4.8 out of 5, which is about as high as scores get.

Luxury Escapes offers ‘luxury for less’, heavily discounted stays at luxury resorts, boutique hotels and villas, as well as holiday packages that include extras such as a bottle of wine, a fruit basket, meals, spa treatments, and discounts on services. They also small group tours, luxury train journeys, expedition cruises, and scenic flights.

Lodgings That Can’t be Booked Elsewhere

Many owners of smaller kinds of accommodation, such as holiday houses, apartment rentals, and bed and breakfasts don’t have their own websites. Prior to accommodation booking websites and OTAs, those more intimate properties relied on promoting themselves through real estate agents, guidebook listings and word-of-mouth.

When accommodation booking websites and OTAs appeared, those types of lodgings jumped at the chance to be listed on those platforms, as it meant they didn’t have to go to the trouble or expense of paying someone to create and maintain a website and could get global coverage of a kind they’d only dreamt of before.

In many cases, unless you’ve stayed in a property before, you live locally, or you get a great tip from someone who has stayed in the place, you might not find it anywhere else. There are countless properties that can only be booked on global accommodation booking sites and OTAs, many of which unfortunately score low TrustPilot rankings.

One booking site we love for exceptionally beautiful properties, many of which you might not see elsewhere, is called PLUM Guide. They actually have experts visit and vet the properties listed and provide local ‘in-house care’, people who are responsible for making your stay “exceptional” as well.

While their properties are often on the more expensive side, these are the kinds of gorgeous apartments and homes that many of us would book for a special holiday with loved-ones – from a honeymoon in a Paris apartment to a multi-generational holiday on the Mediterranean. Their TrustPilot ranking is 4.4, which is excellent.

Lower Prices

Most travellers prefer to book accommodation on booking sites or OTAs, such as Agoda, BookingExpedia, ebookers, lastminute.com, and Wotif simply because they can book a cheaper stay. Prices are nearly always lower than the room rates listed on a property’s website, and travellers can also book other elements of their trip, such as transfers, flights, etc. More on that below.

The reason that room rates are usually lower is because accommodation booking sites and OTAs often contractually require that the property enable the accommodation website or OTA to offer lower rates than the lodging itself, in return for listing on their platform and the exposure that brings. Of course, you have to question the ethics of that.

I’ve checked the TrustPilot reviews of all the major global accommodation sites and OTAs. The average rating is 1.4 stars out of 5 stars, which TrustPilot classifies as ‘bad’, but which I’d say is ‘terrible’.

Of all the major accommodation sites and OTAs, Trip.com gets the best TrustPilot score of 4.1 stars (‘great’) based on almost 60,000 reviews. I’d call that ‘fantastic’. You can use the site to book all kinds of accommodation – hotels, resorts, B&Bs, villas, vacation homes, apartments, hostels, home-stays, camping sites, farm stays, you name it.

You can also use Trip.com to book flights, trains, hire cars, cruises, and tours, and buy tickets for attractions. Bundle bookings together and you get discounts. With such a high TrustPilot score, 61% of reviews being 5-star, and prompt responses from Trip.com staff, this is by far the most ethical of the big accommodation booking sites and OTAs.

Flexibility

Another reason for travellers preferring to use accommodation booking sites or OTAs is the flexibility they offer. Many travellers like to have the flexibility to change plans or cancel bookings. We get it, but consider what that last minute cancellation means for the property.

It’s challenging for hotels and other types of lodgings to run their businesses when guests cancel at the last minute, as it’s rare these days to get ‘walk-ins’. That’s why properties can’t afford to offer last minute cancellations without fees.

Free Cancellations

Accommodation booking sites and OTAs will often offer rooms at different rates: the lowest rates are often ‘no cancellation’ rates to lock travellers into the booking, while higher rates give travellers flexibility to cancel until closer to their stay. Do consider the property before you hit cancel.

Loyalty Programmes

Another reason is that accommodation booking sites and OTAs offer loyalty programmes. The more you book with them, the less you pay. Booking’s Genius loyalty programme, for example, offers 10%, 15% and 20% discounts on room rates – which is great for travellers but not so good for the properties pressured into participating.

 

Where possible, do consider booking directly with properties. We completely understand why you might prefer to book on accommodation booking sites and OTAs rather than book directly with lodgings. But before you do, please check in with the property and/or check if those booking sites are trustworthy and operate ethically.

 

We’ll update advice in this post as situations change. In the meantime, please do let us know in the comments below if you have any questions or you have tips to how to book accommodation ethically. We love hearing from readers.

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AUTHOR BIO

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A travel and food writer who has experienced over 70 countries and written for The Guardian, Australian Gourmet Traveller, Feast, Delicious, National Geographic Traveller, Conde Nast Traveller, Travel+Leisure Southeast Asia, DestinAsian, TIME, CNN, The Independent, The Telegraph, Sunday Times Travel Magazine, AFAR, Wanderlust, International Traveller, Get Lost, Four Seasons Magazine, Fah Thai, Sawasdee, and more, as well as authored more than 40 guidebooks for Lonely Planet, DK, Footprint, Rough Guides, Fodors, Thomas Cook, and AA Guides.

8 thoughts on “How to Book Accommodation Ethically So You’re Not Staying for Free”

  1. Some great advice. I’d like to add, as an accommodation owner, that most properties hate the online booking sites and view them as a necessary evil in order for customers to find their property. Most are more than happy to help you book directly and the smart ones offer discounts for direct booking off the best price you find online.

    If you book a room for $1,000 they have to pay $15 to 20% commission to the booking site. why not offered to you for $900? you save 10% on your booking, and they save 5 to 10% in fees.

    Worth noting that if you call a large property, the reception may not have the knowledge or ability to do this, but it’s a good reason to stay with a small local businesses where a manager or owner may be easier to contact and will approve a discount like this gladly.

    At my property, at 10% discount is automatically offered for all direct bookings via our website or by contact through email or social media or phone.

  2. Hi Lara, so much great advice here. I never book direct with hotels but now I will definitely consider it if they are cheaper than the hotel sites.

  3. Hi Loren, I don’t blame properties for hating the sites, but I get why travellers like to use them – especially if they can pay less. But aren’t properties required to let sites such as Booking offer rates lower than the property? From what I understand that’s often part of their contracts. Thank you so much for those additional tips. Much appreciated.

  4. Hi Helena, thank you! As Loren, an accommodation owner says, the smart properties will offer discounts for booking direct. Worth approaching a property you really like the look of to see if they’ll do that. It’s a win-win.

  5. Very balanced like your Guardian editorial. As an accommodation owner appreciate all you did to help so many of us get paid. Wish you luck for the future.

  6. Hi Donald, thank you for the kind words. So pleased I was able to help. Thanks so much. Hoping Booking has sorted out their problems and everyone is paid on time hereon! You too!

  7. Lara thanks for this, had no idea this was a problem until I read your Guardian story. I highly really recommend the Ethical Consumer site. They score travel booking sites out of 20 and Booking, Agoda, Trip Advisor, Airbnb and the like all score around 8-8.5. They also offer more ethical alternatives like Fairbnb and Canopy&Stars. Keep up the great work.

  8. Hi Carol, thanks for that tip! I’ve just looked at Ethical Consumer and I will add it to the post, but seems like so much of the good info that people need is hidden behind a paywall and the subscription is rather steep. But, yes, that list is great and it’s a good guide! Someone else suggested Fairbnb, so I’ll add that to the post as well. I had not heard of Canopy & Stars, but I’ll look into that also. Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment :)

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