Last year, I ran the Philadelphia marathon - my first one, hooray! I’d like to run more in the future, though that’s not what this post is about.

I had a bad experience the night before the marathon that has made me wonder about third-party sales. To tell the story quickly, the marathon started at 7AM, and I don’t live in Philadelphia anymore, so I needed to come down the night before. Through Kayak, I found and booked a room at the Philadelphia Embassy Suites hotel, which is just a few blocks away from the starting line. Great deal, too!

But when I arrived at the hotel, they said they had never received my reservation. I was pretty mad; I had my confirmation with me from Kayak and my card had been charged. The hotel was full by then, so I ended up finding a room at another hotel out by the airport, woke up at 5AM, much earlier than I had wanted to, made the start on time and ran the race.

But I really wondered whose fault this was. Here’s how third-party hotel reservations work: you find a room through an aggregator such as Kayak or Expedia. You make a reservation, and they _fax_┬áthat reservation on to the hotel. And that’s pretty much what you pay them to do. Amazingly, Kayak doesn’t _actively check_┬áto see whether the reservation was received, e.g. through a phone call.

If the hotel’s fax machine isn’t working you’re out of luck when you arrive. And if your room isn’t available, Kayak isn’t guaranteeing you a room at all, they just refund your card or find you another room.

So, what’s the point of hotel aggregators? They provide:

  • Reviews, which you can find pretty much anywhere else on the web these days, and which can be supported through advertising

  • A search engine, but then why am I not calling the hotel directly once I find out which one has the lowest price?

They don’t provide:

  • A guarantee of a good night’s stay and an available room

So, it seems to me as if third-party booking sites are doomed over the long run. Am I wrong about this? Search engines seem valuable, and customer service guarantees / insurance seem valuable, but not the middle ground of search and booking aggregators.