How One Woman Lost $9K on an Accidental Hotel Booking

Even if you cancel within minutes, online travel agencies may not be able to secure a refund for accidental bookings.
Meghan Coyle
By Meghan Coyle 
Edited by Giselle M. Cancio

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By all accounts, Heather McKay was doing what a savvy traveler should: planning well in advance, debating hotels versus vacation rentals and comparing final prices (including those sneaky hidden travel fees).

But one stray click online led to a very costly mistake.

McKay accidentally booked a nonrefundable rate at a hotel in London for a two-and-a-half months-long stay almost a year out. The total was 7,140 British pounds. Her credit card showed the charge as about $9,200.

A simple mistake to remedy, right? Wrong. Her recourse for a refund was limited because she booked a nonrefundable rate through an online travel agency (OTA). These websites, such as, Priceline and Expedia, make it easy to check availability and prices across travel providers, but getting a refund can be difficult if customers need to cancel or change their plans.

How it happened

Back in August, McKay was looking into housing options for her 21-year-old daughter, who was thinking of doing an internship in London for in the summer of 2024. She was considering the possibility of having her daughter stay in a hotel for two months.

“I was like, ‘I really want you to have some type of special experience after college, so let's look at the feasibility,’” McKay says.

She logged in to her account, found a small, studio-style hotel called the TiTiwangsa One Paddington and set arbitrary dates for two months in 2024. She had no intention of booking the room, but she needed to click through the flow to see the final price, with taxes and fees included.

This drawn-out booking flow is prone to accidents and is a tactic used by some online travel agencies, airlines and hotels to get customers to spend more money. It’s called “drip pricing,” a practice where they do not show all mandatory fees until the very end of the booking process. As recently as August, the attorney general of Texas filed a lawsuit against Booking Holdings, the parent company of, for omitting mandatory fees from initial room rates.

McKay says she was confused when the website showed her the total in British pounds instead of U.S. dollars, and she tried different options to see if it would show the conversion. Before she knew it, she'd booked the hotel stay.

“I was like, ‘Oh my god, how did I just book that?’" McKay says, adding that she never selects nonrefundable rates at hotels.

Leaving the refund up to the hotel owner

Just minutes after the accidental booking, McKay immediately canceled the reservation online and called’s customer service team, hoping they could reverse the charge. They said they would explain what happened to the hotel’s owner and encouraged her to dispute the charge with her credit card company, which she did.

But neither nor the credit card company resolved the accidental charge. In emails from, a customer service representative told McKay the hotel’s owner refused to offer a refund or even a travel voucher.

Sage Hunter, a representative for, confirmed with NerdWallet that the refund was solely up to the hotel's discretion because McKay had booked a nonrefundable rate.

"The onus to provide a refund rests with the hotel and not the online travel agency in this situation," Dennis Schaal, founding editor of Skift, a travel industry news site, said. "That's because the online travel agency is merely the middleman, facilitating the reservation on behalf of the hotel."

He explained that receives a commission from the hotel, usually about 10% to 25%, so the online travel agency wouldn't have the full amount to refund.

McKay escalated the issue at, but says she still hasn't been offered even a partial refund from the OTA. She even called the hotel in the U.K. to try to plead her case directly. The credit card company also refused to approve the chargeback.

By the time October rolled around, it was becoming clear that McKay was not going to get a refund. She even asked if TiTiwangsa One Paddington would reinstate her stay, thinking it would be better to get something in return for her $9,200. The hotel refused once again. TiTiwangsa One Paddington did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

Hiding behind the intermediary

McKay was furious with the London hotel, which in her mind, was taking her money without providing any services.

However, hotels have the upper hand in these customer disputes when an OTA is involved. In’s Terms of Service, it says the customer enters into a contractual agreement directly with the service provider (the hotel, in this case) and the customer agrees to the service provider’s cancellation policies.

McKay got a better-than-normal scenario in that did try to mediate with the hotel.

"We've tried numerous times [to reach the hotel]. We've contacted them via phone, email and right now, it's really in the partner's court to provide that refund," Hunter says. "It was truly a simple mistake and that's something we've been advocating for on our end."

She says the hotel has gone completely silent. Neither nor McKay has been able to get in touch with the hotel recently. The TiTiwangsa One Paddington is still open for reservations on, though.

Refunds on reservations made on third-party travel booking sites can get especially complicated because of the number of parties involved. In some cases, online travel agencies will point customers seeking a refund to the airlines or hotels to resolve issues themselves. And other times the airlines or hotels will push the responsibility back on the third-party booking site, leaving customers caught in the middle.

Fighting for legislation

McKay wants better consumer protections for accidental bookings like hers. There’s already a federal rule that helps prevent this with flight reservations. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, airlines must allow customers to get a full refund if they cancel their flight within 24 hours of booking and the ticket was purchased at least seven days before departure.

But your flight must be booked directly with the airline for the federal rule to protect you, as flights booked on third-party sites are exempt from the policy. And nothing of the kind exists for hotel bookings.

There has been some progress, though, on hotel fee transparency. Earlier this year, President Joe Biden announced plans to crack down on “junk fees” like hotel resort fees, and Congress is considering legislation that would require hotels and online travel agencies to disclose fees upfront, instead of making customers click through several pages to see the final price.

In fact, McKay says she shared her story with senators and attorney generals, urging them to support the current legislation and sue third-party travel booking sites. If those requirements around fee transparency already existed, McKay could have avoided this entire debacle when she was researching prices.

“Everybody makes mistakes, and it's not something that needs to be this costly,” McKay says. “I thought we had better consumer protections.”

Until travel companies make changes, customers need to be extra vigilant about cancellation policies when booking hotels online. Booking directly with the hotel, instead of through an OTA, has some advantages. There are less likely to be errors in your reservation, you might be able to earn hotel points or elite status, and getting a refund might be easier.

Schaal recommends booking refundable hotel rates whenever possible. It might cost more money upfront, but it saves travelers the hassle and gives them the opportunity to rebook if they find a better deal later.

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