In the end, Frank Moreno’s beef with Expedia over the price of his Charleston hotel room came down to a few bucks.
But it was his anniversary trip, the 63-year-old disabled Vietnam vet says. And he believes that there’s a bigger issue involved.
Last December, Moreno says, Expedia tried to sell them a beach-side hotel room whose price, the couple alleges, was inflated by a hidden $50 handling fee.
Moreno and his wife Lori didn’t take the bait. But in a lawsuit claiming false advertising and consumer fraud, the couple wants Expedia to pay $250,000 in damages.
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“I don’t care that it was only $50,” Moreno says. “I don’t care that they are a big corporation. They need to be taught a lesson.”
Elizabeth Stone, the Raleigh-based attorney representing Expedia in the case, did not reply to emails this week seeking comment.
Moreno, who says he is a former paralegal, is handling his lawsuit by himself. It claims that on the night of their anniversary, the Morenos arrived at the Charleston hotel they had booked through Expedia to find that their reservation wrongly had been made for a month later.
Rather than stay at the hotel at a higher rate than what they had agreed to pay, the Morenos say they went online to search for an alternative.
They say they found one in the Seaside Inn on the Isle of Palms, the lawsuit says. Expedia’s website showed several rooms available for $119.
Yet when the couple called to book, the Expedia representative insisted that the rate was $150 a night.
As the couple pushed back on the discrepancy in cost, Moreno says, the representative kept pressuring them to book at the $150 rate, telling them that the Seaside Inn was quickly filling up.
After the agent announced that the last room had been taken, he volunteered to help the Morenos find another motel. Instead, the complaint says, they hung up and drove directly to the Seaside Inn.
“The place was a ghost town, a ghost town,” Moreno says. Dozens of rooms were available – at a rate of $119 a night, the lawsuit says.
The hotel manager, who supplied a hand-written affidavit for Moreno’s lawsuit, informed the couple that Expedia adds a booking fee.
“She told us, ‘You should have come straight here,’ ” Moreno says. “We didn’t know.”
Charlotte attorney Gary Jackson says he doubts a laywer would have taken the Morenos’ case due to the limits on any award. But he applauds the couple’s efforts.
“I’m glad that they’re fighting this,” says Jackson, who often handles consumer-related complaints.
“Markets like the travel industry have become so competitive ...They push you as far as they think they can, and sometimes that’s over the line.”
In the travel and entertainment sector, more and more consumers are relying on third-party companies such as Expedia, TripAdvisor.com and Priceline to help them book the cheapest airline tickets, hotels and rental cars. After gobbling up rivals Travelocity and Orbitz in the past five years, Seattle-based Expedia has emerged as an industry giant.
Online reviews of Expedia’s performance are highly mixed. While it’s true that happy customers are less likely to take the time to fill out surveys, complaints alleging double billings, bungled reservations and Expedia’s failure to own up to its mistakes pop up frequently on sites like Consumer Reports.
One common complaint involves hidden fees. In 2015, an Ohio man sued Expedia after he says the company promised his travel party of four free check-in for their first bags. Instead, he says, the travelers had to pay a total of $650 in luggage fees before they could board their plane.
While Moreno says he was a frequent Expedia customer in the past, he says the company has lost his business.
Whether he prevails in his court case or not is beside the question.
“I don’t expect to win. I expect to make a point,” he says. “This is not about the money. It’s about saying, ‘Enough is enough, guys.’
“Don’t lie to us. Just don’t lie.”