When Junewon Lee and his partner, Alex, decided to go to Bora Bora for their anniversary, they had their hearts set on staying in an overwater bungalow. Scrolling through the Citi travel portal, Lee found a spectacular deal on a Presidential Overwater Villa at the Conrad Bora Bora Nui and quickly made a reservation.
It wasn’t until months later — and just weeks before their trip — that Lee discovered something unusual about that overwater bungalow when he double-checked his reservation: It was on the beach, not over the water. Worse, after many unsuccessful attempts to get Citi Travel to correct this mistake, an agent canceled the couple’s reservation altogether.
With time running out and no overwater bungalow or any other accommodation booked, Lee turned to TPG for help.
Could we save this much-anticipated trip and get this couple the overwater bungalow in paradise they’d been dreaming about?
Using Citi Travel with Booking.com to plan a special trip
Back in October 2023, Lee was perusing the Citi Travel portal, which is powered by Booking.com. He was specifically looking for resorts with overwater bungalows in Bora Bora.
“We immediately saw the Conrad, and it looked beautiful,” Lee recalled. “The overwater bungalows were available for our dates, and we were able to use the Citi Prestige fourth-night-free benefit.” The couple would essentially be able to enjoy four nights at the resort for the cost of three, making this an even better deal.
The information for the Citi Prestige® Card has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.
Cardholders must book a minimum four-consecutive-night stay at a participating hotel through ThankYou.com or by calling 1-800-ThankYou.
The price you pay during booking includes that benefit, and the savings are equal to the average nightly rate of your reservation for one night, excluding taxes and fees.
The customer can use this benefit up to two times per calendar year.
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Including the Citi Prestige benefit, the final rate for the Presidential Overwater Villa ended up at $852 per night. That probably should have been cause for concern.
It wasn’t just a spectacular deal. For one of the top room categories at the Conrad Bora Bora Nui, in high season, that rate was simply unbelievable.
But Lee says he had no idea the rate should have raised his eyebrow since he had neither booked a similar trip in the past, nor done very much hotel research on the destination.
“We never even looked at any other properties,” Lee told me. “As soon as we saw the Presidential Overwater Villa at the Conrad was available and at a rate that was well within our price range, we were sold.”
When Citi Travel even allowed the couple to use their Prestige benefit to save even more on the stay, it seemed like the anniversary trip was coming together perfectly.
At least, initially.
Citi Travel confirms: The Presidential Overwater Villa at the Conrad
If Lee and his partner had any suspicions about the validity of the price for the Presidential Overwater Villa, those completely dissipated when the email confirmation arrived from Citi Travel.
“Our card was charged the full cost for the four nights and Citi Travel sent our confirmation via email,” Lee explained.
With their Presidential Overwater Villa at the Conrad confirmed, the couple turned their thoughts to how they would get to Bora Bora.
“We redeemed 160,000 American Airlines miles for two business-class seats on Air Tahiti Nui,” Lee told me. “Then, for our return flight, we were able to snag two business-class seats on Air France for 210,000 [Flying Blue] miles. We really couldn’t believe how perfectly the entire trip came together.”
Unfortunately, problems with this perfect trip lay ahead — big problems.
“The room wasn’t over the water. It was just behind the beach facing the lagoon,” reported Lee. “Because we had booked through Citi Travel, the hotel just referred us back to our booking agent.”
Lee was then trapped in a circular battle between the hotel and Citi Travel, with neither willing nor able to correct the booking mistake.
“It was frustrating,” Lee recalled. “Even with my confirmed reservation from Citi Travel, I was getting nowhere fast.”
We can’t fix it, so we’re canceling it
For the next two weeks, Lee attempted to fix his reservation on his own. The Citi Travel agents were polite but noncommittal. Each email from Citi Travel offered an apology for the problem with the reservation but no solution.
As Lee continued to email and call each day, the attitude of the customer service agents began to shift.
“They [Citi Travel representatives] weren’t being friendly anymore. One supervisor told me on the phone to take it or leave it. He said we were now confirmed in a garden room and that he couldn’t reach anyone at the hotel who would put us in the overwater bungalow. He told us to hope for the best, and we may get upgraded when we arrive. I told him our confirmation from Citi Travel says a Presidential Overwater Villa, so why would we accept a garden room on land? We don’t want to do that.”
Lee says the representative then informed him that the couple’s reservation was nonrefundable. Therefore, the Citi Travel agent advised, the nearly $3,000 prepaid deposit would be forfeited if they canceled.
Unsure what to do next, Lee and his partner mulled over their options. One of the primary reasons they had chosen Bora Bora was to experience an overwater bungalow. Now, the Citi Travel agent had given them an ultimatum: accept the garden-view room or cancel and lose their money.
Neither choice was appealing to the couple, but it turns out they didn’t have to decide. That Citi Travel agent chose to address the mistake by canceling the entire reservation and refunding their deposit despite the previous mention of its nonrefundable status.
“We did not ask him to cancel the reservation,” Lee clarified. “We were still thinking about what to do when the cancellation came through.”
This anniversary trip was starting to look like a complete bust.
However, Lee wasn’t willing to give up just yet. He had one more idea: to ask TPG for help.
Can TPG help these troubled travelers?
When Lee’s request for help landed on my desk, he was desperate. The couple had their airline tickets to French Polynesia and still held on to some hope that an overwater bungalow was in the cards.
But with less than three weeks before departure, their hope was dwindling.
“Do you think you can help us?” Lee asked me. “Citi Travel says there are no overwater bungalows to book. I called the hotel, and there are [overwater bungalows], so I don’t know why Citi Travel can’t just correct its mistake. Prices are skyrocketing as we get closer to the holidays.”
I certainly hoped we could help. But as soon as I started looking at the details of the case, I had my concerns. All the classic hallmarks of a “fat finger” deal were there — that’s when a rate is a result of a human data entry error.
When I checked rates for overwater bungalows for the same dates across Bora Bora, it was immediately clear to me that Lee’s original reservation was the result of a huge pricing error.
The nightly rate across the atoll for an entry-level overwater bungalow did not dip below $1,400 at any of the resorts that I could see.
Lee had booked the Presidential Overwater Villa for $852 per night — not including tax — with the Citi Prestige fourth night free, bringing the final cost down to a mere $714 per night. That particular room type can go for more than $6,000 per night during the holiday season, though. Undoubtedly, someone goofed when they loaded that rate into the Citi Travel system.
When the Conrad Bora Bora Nui received the reservation from Citi Travel with the bargain-basement rate of $852 per night, the hotel simply placed the couple in a room that corresponded most closely to that rate: a garden-view room on the beach.
Lee asked the hotel to honor his original reservation and confirm the Presidential Overwater Villa, but the Conrad referred him back to Citi Travel, the booking agent that had offered the mistaken rate for that room category.
That’s not a surprise. If a booking agent or travel portal makes a pricing error and the hotel is not willing to honor the mistaken rate, the traveler has three choices:
Cancel for a refund: The booking agent must let the traveler cancel for a full refund if the rate is not valid for the same room category on the reservation. This is true even if the rate that is on the confirmation says “nonrefundable.” In the end, that’s why Citi Travel refunded Lee’s prepaid booking for the Presidential Overwater Villa that it could not provide for the price he paid.
Accept a “downgrade”: In this case, the Conrad searched for a room that more closely aligned with the rate the couple paid. This type of downgrade can be an acceptable resolution for travelers who have booked a mistaken rate.
Pay the price difference: The booking agent may attempt to negotiate something reasonable with the property for the customer — and there may be a cost involved.
But Lee says he was presented only with a take-it-or-leave-it option … and then an involuntary cancellation. However, canceling wasn’t the resolution the couple wanted, nor would it have been a fair outcome.
Can Booking.com find this couple an overwater bungalow?
Even though a third-party booking agent is not required to honor a pricing mistake, sometimes a traveler will get lucky if the error isn’t too outrageous and the customer made the booking in good faith. That’s to say, the traveler wasn’t trying to game the system and take advantage of an easily identifiable pricing error.
Based on my conversations with Lee, I was convinced that he had made the original reservation in good faith. So I hoped Citi Travel with Booking.com could correct this problem by finding some category of overwater bungalow for the couple, albeit not necessarily a $6,000-per-night Presidential Overwater Villa.
I sent Lee’s request to our executive contact at Booking.com and asked for a quick review as the clock was ticking. This is not a customer-facing representative, but someone I have access to as a consumer advocate and member of the media.
Here’s an excerpt of what I wrote:
As they checked their reservations a few days ago with [the Conrad], they found out that their reservation with Booking/Citi Travel doesn’t match what the hotel has them confirmed in. They specifically booked the hotel for the over-the-water bungalows, and it looks like Booking/Citi confirmed them in a land-side bungalow.
Can your team have a look and see what can be done now? Thanks!
Michelle Couch-Friedman, Consumer advocate
After the Booking.com team got involved, good news eventually came for Lee … in a big way.
Overwater bungalow confirmed — at the Four Seasons Bora Bora!
About 10 days after Lee first contacted TPG with his overwater bungalow booking problem, some very good news arrived.
Before we contacted TPG, we were about to throw in the towel and give up – especially after the Citi Travel agent canceled our reservation. I’m so grateful we didn’t.
Thank you so much for your help. Junewon Lee
And I’m happy to report that despite the rough start, the couple had a fabulous trip to Bora Bora. The overwater bungalow at the Four Seasons was everything they hoped for, and the trip was a complete success thanks to the intervention of TPG.
What to know before booking a hotel through a third party
To reduce your chances of ending up in a similar fiasco, here are some things to remember when booking hotels, airfare, cruises and car rentals through a third-party site.
Descriptions and photos you see on a third-party website are not always current. It’s best to take a screenshot of the details as you’re booking. That way, should there be a problem later, you’ll have the evidence to show exactly what you booked.
Review your confirmation immediately
After you receive your confirmation from the third-party booking agent, make sure to review all the details thoroughly. Remember, when you don’t book directly, there is an extra layer between you and the hotel to work through if problems pop up, such as if your reservation is for the wrong dates or room category. It will be up to you and the third-party agent, not the hotel, to correct those issues, so always review your confirmation as soon as you receive it.
Contact the hotel directly
This next part is crucial to successfully navigate a potential mistake with a reservation booked through a third party. After receiving the confirmation from the booking agent and checking its accuracy, contact the hotel. Because you’re dealing with two reservation systems, make sure the hotel’s confirmation details match yours. You might find, as Lee did, that they don’t match. The sooner you find out you’ve got a problem, the better your chance of correcting that problem with minimal expense and disappointment.
What if the hotel and the booking agent confirm a pricing error?
Pricing errors on third-party booking sites are not uncommon.
Travelers should always be wary of too-good-to-be-true deals offered on third-party booking sites for airfares, hotels, cruises, and car rentals.
You should know that there are currently no laws or regulations that protect consumers and require a booking agent to honor a data-entry pricing mistake.
If you successfully book a deal that turns out to be an error, it will be subject to cancellation. Typically, when these rates are detected, the traveler’s plans are voided, or a higher rate is imposed.
So, consumers beware.
I reached out to our executive contact at Hilton about Lee’s case and about pricing errors. Here is the company’s official response:
At Hilton, we are a business of people serving people, and it’s our top priority to take care of our customers and guests throughout their entire travel experience – from booking to billing – while also offering them choice and control. We encourage our guests to book direct through official Hilton channels, including Hilton.com and the Hilton Honors app, for the best available inventory and rates.
If booking errors occur with third-party vendors, our hotel teams work hard to find the best solutions with their available inventory, which fluctuates daily.
In this case, the best solution the Conrad Bora Bora Nui found was giving the couple a room despite Citi Travel’s mistake, albeit one that was not in the same category the couple had intended to book.
What can you do if neither the hotel nor the booking agent will honor the rate?
There are no laws that require a travel provider to honor a pricing error. So what happens if you book a rate that turns out to be invalid — and you’ve already invested in other parts of the trip?
The key is flexibility; be open to compromise.
Most travel providers don’t want to ruin their customers’ vacations. But these are for-profit businesses. As such, since travel providers and booking agents aren’t compelled to honor a mistakenly added rate (which might also cost the company thousands of dollars), for the most part, they won’t.
Instead, a reputable booking agent will probably offer you a reasonable compromise that should come at little to no cost to you. If that doesn’t happen, you can escalate your complaint from the basic customer service level.
You’re probably wondering, in this age of artificial intelligence, how to reach a customer-facing executive with your message. That part is easy.
If you’re having no luck, as Lee was, finding a real person at the company who has the ability to fix your problem, my advocacy organization Consumer Rescue can help. You tell us the name of the business you’re struggling with, and we’ll give you the name of someone there who we know has a positive track record helping customers. This service is free of charge to consumers.
With that information in hand, you can write a short, polite request for reconsideration.
Where to file a formal complaint
Finally, if your best efforts to come to a reasonable resolution are futile, you might have a few more options. If the facts of your case are on your side, filing a formal complaint with a consumer protection agency will often give the company involved the nudge it needs to do the right thing.
Here are some of the places you might start:
Although the spectacular rate that Lee booked at the Conrad Bora Bora Nui was simply the result of a human error, it was not an obvious mistake. Lee had no reason to believe Citi Travel’s confirmation was invalid, even though it was. If he hadn’t checked with the hotel several weeks beforehand and uncovered the discrepancies, this couple would have been in for a disappointing surprise at check-in.
As Lee discovered, when booking mistakes like this happen, the consumer usually ends up with the short end of the stick.
But Lee reached out to TPG, so that wasn’t this couple’s fate. Instead, they celebrated their anniversary exactly where they always intended — over the water in a tropical bungalow in French Polynesia.
Happy anniversary, Junewon and Alex!
If you are in a consumer battle with a cruise line, hotel, car rental company, airline or vacation rental agency, send your request for assistance to firstname.lastname@example.org, and I’ll be happy to help you, too.