When is a Direct Booking Not a Direct Booking?

Travel is a never-ending process of learning, and so is travel planning.

A few days ago, I was working through bookings for an upcoming trip to Mexico. I had narrowed down my accommodation choices for one particular city and was ready to reserve. My usual policy with bookings now is to avoid third-party sites (e.g., Booking.com, Expedia, etc.) if the prices offered on the hotel or airline site are comparable and if booking directly is reasonably feasible.

My reasoning is that I’d rather deal directly with the business in question, just in case there’s an issue. I’ve had situations with reservations made through a third-party site where the hotel seemed to care less and actually said something to the effect: “Too bad. It’s booked through Expedia, so we can’t do anything about it.” That’s not what I want to hear when there’s a problem. Airlines, too, may shrug their shoulders if there’s a flight change or other muddle—not necessarily your fault—and you booked through a third-party site. I’ve also wondered sometimes if Expedia bookings get dropped to the bottom of the priority list when it comes to assigning rooms or other things left to the discretion of hotel staff, but I have no proof of that.

Finally, I imagine that the third-party sites take a commission for handling bookings, so I’d rather give that money to the hotel or airline and support the business.

In this case, I went to the website of the hotel. After obsessively reading every page of the site (sorry, that’s just what I do), I went to the booking page to reserve. I clicked on the “Book now” button and was flipped into the reservations page. I had planned to book two nights, but as I was filling in the reservation, something occurred to me that made me decide to book three nights instead.

Great. All done. I get my reservation confirmation within minutes.

Then I recall something about a “romantic getaway” package that I saw on the website. Yup, there it is: book three nights and get free wine, flowers, and a discount. But you must book directly. Okay, I’m thinking, that’s worth following up. After all, I just booked the stay moments before, directly through the website, surely they will be gracious about awarding us the perks.

I write to the manager, explain the situation, and ask if they will honour the package deal.

No, he says, that’s only for bookings made directly.

I’m scratching my head: I did book directly. I point that out. He then explains that bookings through the website are not considered direct bookings.

Say what?

He further explains that a booking through the website actually takes you to a form on—you guessed it—Booking.com. So that’s not a direct booking, in their eyes. A direct booking is only if you telephone or email the hotel.

Now, I’m not really worried about getting the package perks, but I am concerned about this odd definition of “direct booking.” Especially since, when I clicked their “Book now” button and I flipped into the reservation page, the page setup and background visually matched the hotel website. There was no indication I was no longer on their website, unless I decoded the enormously long URL in the browser window. How would I even know that I wasn’t booking directly?

Well, lesson learned. I now know that booking directly through a hotel (or other business) website may not actually be a direct booking by their definition. I must needs be more careful in future. Sadly for the businesses involved, this may also mean I’m less inclined to take the trouble to book “directly” through their sites, if I’m just going to end up on Booking.com anyway. Thus, they will lose out on the commission they pay to the booking site.

What are your experiences with booking through third-party sites and/or directly with hotels? Let me know in a comment.

Sacha Lodge: Amazon Adventure Part 2

Sacha Lodge’s canopy walk, 30 m above the forest floor.

When last we met, gentle reader, I was lost deep within the Amazon jungle, pitifully dehydrated and starved, surrounded by merciless headhunters and savage wild animals, swooning in the steadying embrace of my brave companion, as we faced, unarmed, the rapid onslaught of a particularly bloodthirsty-looking individual.

“Lemonade, madame?” he inquires solicitously, proffering a tray of iced fruity drinks.

This is the conundrum and delight of Sacha Lodge: there is no question that you are in the rainforest, light years away from any town. There are piranhas in the lagoon, caimans directly underneath the boardwalk upon which you stand, tamarin monkeys swinging nonchalantly overhead, and tarantulas within armsreach. Yet your weightiest decision is whether to choose fish or beef for your main course. I’ve always been more than a little timid about the dangers of the Amazon, but—as with so many things—once you’re actually there, it all seems exciting and fun rather than threatening.

That’s not to say there aren’t safety concerns. As we sipped those welcoming drinks, the manager gave us the orientation talk with all its do’s and don’ts. We were assigned two guides and given our own little tour group, probably because, being birders, we were the odd ones out. (Trust me, no sane person wants to be stuck in a group with birders.)

Our four-night stay was quite regimented: up every morning by 5 am when the guide knocks on your door. Breakfast at 5:30, hit the trail—or the canoe—at 6:00. The guides decide your destination. One morning, you climb the canopy walk (30 m of stairs). Another morning, you take a different 30 m of stairs to a platform atop a massive kapok tree. A third day, you might go on a longer canoe ride to more distant birding areas. What gets done when depends on the weather and the interests of the guests.

Back at the lodge by 10:30, you find that you are peckish (after all, breakfast was a loooong time ago), so naturally, there’s a snack waiting for you out in the open-air dining pavilion. Then a bit of leisure time before lunch, followed by more relaxation during the hottest hours of the afternoon. Take a swim in the lagoon, read, catch up on your sleep.

At 4 pm, you’re out again with your guides for more exploration, in our case, via small canoe up the various waterways (see previous post “Birding By Boat”) where the wildlife-spotting opportunities change constantly. Birding is a challenge, as the area boasts nearly 500 species, many from families completely foreign to us: antbirds, manakins, jacamars, woodcreepers, etc.

Hoatzin

The first day, we easily spot one of my targets for the trip: the primitive hoatzin with its funky hairstyle, clambering awkwardly through the trees. The next day, we find the boat-billed heron, huge dark eyes peering through the gloom. On the last day, I spot a massive anaconda on the bank less than a metre from our boat. And monkeys, always monkeys, noisily feeding and moving through the forest: capuchins, red howlers, squirrel monkeys, night monkeys, tamarins.

As darkness arrives, you head back to the lodge for the most formal meal of the day, when guests compare notes on what they’ve done and seen that day and wrestle with the aforementioned challenge of choosing between several tasty menu options.

Finally, you stagger back to your cabin and fall into bed, not minding at all that it’s only 9 pm. You might struggle to stay awake for a few minutes to enjoy the deafening chorus of night sounds, frogs, insects, and lord knows what else, competing to be heard a few inches from where you are laying your head, but you won’t win that battle for long. Before you know it, that 5:00 knock is tapping at your door.

“This is like summer camp for grown-ups,” my husband pointed out. I don’t know if he was referring to the early lights-out, the structured, supervised activities, or the joy of being outdoors all day, every day, but overall, I think he hit the nail on the head. It wasn’t all fun and games—hiking in stifling heat and humidity while giant carnivorous flies attempt to harvest chunks of your flesh right through your clothes is not my idea of a good time—but it was all worth it. Sacha Lodge provides a superb adventure for those of us who dream of the Amazonian jungle but like our comfy beds at night.

Do’s and Don’ts for Sacha Lodge

  • Do not forget to count your malaria pills before you leave home. (See previous posting “Malarial Muddle.”)
  • Do not forget to stock up on high-powered insect repellent before you leave home. You may not find any in Quito.
  • Do not worry about being clumsy when climbing in and out of the little canoes; I’ve already set a Guinness World Record for awkwardness that is unlikely to be beaten any time soon. Besides, the guides do take good care of you.
  • If you have the time, do take the car trip down from Quito to Coca rather than flying. It’s a beautiful way to see the mountains. You can fly back, so you don’t have to do the drive up.
  • Do bring a swimsuit so that you can enjoy the lagoon pool. Probably the only chance you’ll ever have to swim in the Amazon waters.
  • When the guide offers you a rain slicker, do not be brave or stoic or think you know better. Take the d**n thing or you will regret it. I was already wearing a rain jacket and a rain poncho and thought the one he offered would be extraneous. Wrong. Welcome to Ecuador, where two raincoats are not enough.
  • The lagoon at sunset.

Sacha Lodge: Amazon Adventure

Oil company vehicles being barged up the river to remote sites.

The photos were gorgeous. The reviews were raves. No question, Sacha Lodge in the Amazon basin of Ecuador has a sterling reputation. We had only four nights to spend in the area—someplace we might never visit again—and we wanted to be sure that our experience would be top-notch. We ignored the Big Numbers on the rate sheet and booked.

In the Ecuadorian part of the Amazon, there are a number of jungle lodges (or, as they prefer to style themselves these days, eco-lodges) scattered along the Napo, the largest tributary to the Amazon. From my research, it seemed like they shared some characteristics: e.g., trained guides, walks in the jungle, and canoe rides. Most have some kind of tower or walkway to allow guests to visit the canopy. Differences between the lodges include style of accommodation, quality of food, size of groups, distance from civilization (the farther, the better). Sacha scored high on all these criteria. It also has a swimming area in the river, a huge draw for us, and something no other lodge can boast.

We knew that we didn’t want to waste our precious time doing activities that were of marginal interest, like visiting a local village (see previous blog People Safaris) or fishing for piranha. Our goal was birds and wildlife, as much as possible. So I eliminated the lodges that seemed to put a lot of emphasis on unwanted activities.

When I contacted Sacha, they were firm that we would not be allowed to do any wandering around on our own. Once we arrived, we understood completely why, and to be honest, although we’re usually pretty independent, we wouldn’t have wanted to roam without a guide. There are just too many dangers in the forest and a lot of ways to get lost or injured. This is the depths of the wilderness; you are a long way from medical help and you don’t want to take chances.

They were also cagey about promising exactly which activities we would do, saying that would be up to the guide and the group we were with. I wasn’t thrilled about that. I’ve been on too many tours where we were stuck with people whose interests were completely different and bored guides who obviously couldn’t wait to check their phone messages. However, I trusted to the excellent reviews and the promises that we would have the ultimate Amazon experience.

When I explained that we are birders, the booking agent asked if we’d like to have a guide who specializes in birds, rather than a generalist. Yes, please! In addition, she told me they would try to place us in a group with other birders, if possible. I crossed my fingers.

For all of these lodges, guests make their way to the closest city, Coca, and meet up with a motorized canoe for the trip up the Napo River. A glitch occurred immediately: while most guests arrive by plane and are met at the airport, we chose to be driven down to Coca so we could see the countryside along the way. I had confirmed with the booking office the time that the boat would depart and had received this info: “If you arrive to Coca on your own you will need to join the group around 12h00 in our office of Coca.” We therefore planned to arrive around 11:00 so there would be plenty of time. We arrived at the office just after 11:00 and were met by anxious handlers who indicated everyone else was waiting around just for us and hustled us into the boat asap. Minor issue, but it was lucky that we hadn’t planned on a 12:00 arrival.

Motoring up the river for a couple of hours was fun. The boat had a canopy in case of bad weather, but it was clear and dry that day. We saw a few small clearings on the banks where people lived, but they were far away and not terribly interesting. We were surprised at the amount of development related to the oil industry that we saw: plants and docks and barges moving large goods (think semi-trailer rigs) to or from the oilfields, plus lots of company-owned boats ferrying workers around. This wasn’t the pristine rainforest I had imagined. But that changed once we docked upriver.

Everything–including mattresses–goes in and comes out of Sacha by small canoe.

After leaving the boat, we walked inland for about 30 minutes along a boardwalk through thick forest to the edge of a narrow waterway, where we climbed into a smaller canoe paddled by Sacha staff. We passed a similar canoe tenuously loaded with a double-size mattress, which reminded us that everything that goes into or out of the lodge must go by small canoe.

Ten minutes later, we slipped into the open lagoon across which lay the lodge, a beautiful sight, surrounded as it is by intense green foliage, blue sky, and still, dark water. Now, we were in the Amazon!

(To be continued)

Blackwater lagoon, home to Sacha Lodge.

Vingerklip Lodge

The road to Vingerklip.

During my years of travel, I’ve stayed in hundreds of hotels, motels, lodges, inns, and b&bs, from an elephant stable in South Africa to a monastery in Trinidad. Most were completely forgettable; comfortable to a greater or lesser degree, but nondescript. Some I remember because of the bloodstains on the wall, the dead rat in the hallway, the bullet holes in the door, or the bed that collapsed under me as I slept. Ah, the “adventurous” side of travel!

Then there are the ones that leap to mind as soon as I reminisce about the highlights of past journeys—like the Vingerklip Lodge in the Ugab Valley of northwest Namibia, where we paused on our way from Etosha National Park to the coastal town of Swakopmund. We had spent a week in the park on safari, and while we hadn’t exactly been roughing it there, we were looking for a few plush and easy days of rest.

The lodge is named for the nearby Vingerklip rock “finger” that towers above the surrounding flatlands. You can hike to the bottom (if you want to brave the blistering heat), but other than that, there’s not a lot to do in the immediate area; no impressive herds of wildlife, no manmade entertainment. It’s really in the middle of nowhere. No, my enjoyment had nothing to do with outside activities and everything to do with the lodge itself.

One of the pools set into the hillside.

Set in a stunning location surrounded by rock plateaus and formations, the lodge features lovely arid gardens with many inviting nooks and crannies where you can sit and relax. Swing seats, loungers, chairs, umbrellas, tables, and benches are scattered around the grounds. There is a hot tub and two pools, cleverly located one on each side of the hill, so that no matter the time of day, one pool always has shade. Birds, butterflies, and small lizards find their own corners to feed, rest, or sun themselves.

The lounge, bar, and restaurant are top-notch. As per the usual African lodge custom, meals are presented buffet-style, but the quality and variety staggers the mind, while the number of food attendants assures that you get exactly the cut of meat you prefer or a custom-prepared dish.

For a once-in-a-lifetime experience, book a meal at their Eagle’s Nest restaurant, perched on top of a nearby plateau—you hike a long path and clamber up a staircase to get to it. The climb and the view is spectacular, but not for people who are afraid of heights or can’t manage a lot of stairs! You can also just climb up for the view and not have dinner; it’s free. If you want dinner, be sure to book as early as possible; the restaurant is small, and popular among guests.

Our room was okay but could have used some refurbishing. The latch for the sliding door to the bathroom had the hook mounted on the wrong side of the door, while the toilet seat had two puncture marks that looked like something had sunk its fangs into it. (What bites toilet seats??? Quite a worrisome idea when you think about it….) On the up side, the room boasted a nice porch looking over the isolated landscape and a small, lightly used, waterhole.

Ruppell’s parrot (above) and rosy-faced lovebirds (below) visiting the drippy pipes outside our window.

In any case, as birders, we were prepared to overlook any minor flaws in the room in favour of its unique feature, one that I doubt ever showed up in a promo brochure. From the side of the porch, we looked onto a large water cistern. The tank itself was covered, but the pipes and faucets leaked and dripped. In a place surrounded by bone-dry desert, any source of water becomes a magnet for birds. We had an unbeatable view of the birds that arrived in flocks to drink, including the local specialty, Ruppell’s parrot, and the charming rosy-faced lovebirds.

At night, stargazing in the desert-clear air and comfortable temperatures was all the entertainment we needed.

Day visitors are also welcomed at Vingerklip Lodge; check out their website for more info.

Is there a special lodge, hotel, inn, or b&b you discovered while traveling that lingers in your memory? Let’s hear about it in a comment.

Vingerklip room with rock escarpment behind.