Beware of your next online hotel booking; it may be a killjoy. Ask Rahul Kumar, 49, (name changed) who was left stranded at Dabolim airport here with his family and friends after a reputed firm -- Expedia India -- failed to inform him about the cancellation of his advance booking.
The bizarre incident comes to light at a time when the central government has taken cognisance of many consumer grievances arising out of online e-commerce companies.
The incident -- which took place in the last week of December, when Kumar, who had paid around Rs 1 lakh in advance to book hotel accommodation for six people, including a 10-year-old, but was left stranded -- shows how vulnerable Indian consumers are when the service standards of a major travel e-commerce player like Expedia India are found wanting.
In this particular incident, the company, apparently, forgot to tell Kumar that his booking had been cancelled -- even though it knew about it nearly 15 days in advance.
"I got to know about the cancellation only after I reached Goa. I found out about it after I called up the hotel to get directions," Kumar told IANS.
"I tried reaching out to Expedia India for over eight hours that day, but in vain. My call was transferred over six times to different customer care representatives and still no resolution was offered."
The hotel owner (name withheld) informed IANS that Expedia India was aware of the booking cancellation in advance and that the e-commerce player had even "taken the responsibility of re-booking the guest" at no extra cost.
E-mails exchanged between Expedia India and the hotel concerned, and accessed by IANS, show that the e-commerce player had taken the responsibility of lodging Kumar and his family, but failed to do so.
When contacted, Expedia India's spokesperson said: "On behalf of Expedia, we deeply regret and apologise for the inconvenience caused to the customer. A full refund of the booking has been processed already and we are working to address the requisite gaps to ensure that such incidences are avoided in future."
The nightmare of the holidaymakers did not end with just the last-minute cancellation of hotel booking.
Kumar said that despite repeated conversations with Expedia India -- and receiving repeated assurances -- he was offered no alternative or refund. As a result, he had to -- in peak holiday season -- make a last-minute booking at an exorbitant price at another hotel that was not even remotely as good as the one he had booked.
"It was a double whammy for me... I had booked the package in advance, made the payments in advance and had to again book another hotel at an exorbitant price just because Expedia India failed to inform me about the cancellation before I landed in Goa with my wife and kid. All this was avoidable," Kumar said.
"Adding insult to injury, instead of re-booking us, they came back to me after a few days offering a compensation of Rs 3,000 in coupons to be availed with my next booking. This behaviour of Expedia India is way below the standards expected of an international brand."
According to industry insiders, incidents like these erode the trust of people in e-commerce platforms and may prompt the government to come out with guidelines similar to those being enforced for flight cancellations.
More horrendous is the fact that millions domestically use the online booking platforms which promise customers the "moon but can't even deliver a hotel room".
Consumer rights activists say such cases highlight the need for the Consumer Protection Bill, 2018, to be passed by Parliament. The legislation was introduced in the Lok Sabha on Friday and is expected to be passed during the Budget Session.
Commenting on the need of a strong consumer protection bill that will also deal with e-commerce, George Cheriyan, Director, CUTS International, said that an important provision of the Bill is that a consumer complaint can be filed at the place where the complainant resides which is a clear move from the "caveat emptor" to "caveat venditor".
"This will be make the life of e-consumers easy," Cheriyan said.