By Christopher Elliott Travel columnist
Tribune Media Services
updated 9/2/2008 9:25:35 AM ET 2008-09-02T13:25:35
travel troubleshooter

Q: I’m stuck with a mystery hotel bill, and could use a little help with solving it. Last summer I booked a room at the Sheraton in downtown Duluth, Minn., through Hotwire.com. When we checked out, we paid for our incidentals but not for the room, since we had pre-paid for it online. But a few months later, my credit card was charged for the hotel, too.

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So here’s the mystery. I contacted the Sheraton, and it says Hotwire didn’t pay it for the room. Hotwire is unreachable. I have spent hours and hours trying to recover the extra $194 I had to pay. I’ve disputed the charges with my credit card company, but that’s still pending. I’d just like to know whose fault this is. Any ideas? — Rick Petersen, Redwood Falls, Minn.

A: I think everyone shares a little bit of the blame, but mostly Hotwire. The online agency should have paid your hotel for the room, if not at least responded to your query when you tried to contact it.

In order to understand what happened, it helps to know a little bit about Hotwire. The online agency sells discounted hotel rooms, but the tradeoff is that you don’t find out the name of the property until you’ve paid for it. And all sales are final.

Why keep that information from you? Because a lot of these deals are at top-tier properties like the Sheraton, and they involve what’s referred to in the business as “distressed” inventory — rooms that would otherwise go unsold. Not exactly the kind of thing you want the world to know.

Under normal circumstances, you would pay Hotwire and at some point, Hotwire would pay the hotel. But that didn’t happen. I checked with Hotwire, and it says it experienced an “error” with its payment system.

Here’s where I think several parties should share the blame. Your credit card should have investigated this matter promptly and credited you for the second charge. I find its response to be unfortunate. You might want to consider switching cards to one that’s more responsive to your needs.

Sheraton should have offered you more than the “Hotwire didn’t pay us” response. That’s a good start, but how about removing the charges from your credit card and taking the matter up with Hotwire? That would have been the responsible thing to do. In fact, all it needed to do is contact Hotwire’s supplier support line, a direct line to its finance department, in order to obtain a new payment.

And yes, there were a few things you could have done differently. You say you spent “hours and hours” trying to resolve this, but that Hotwire was unreachable. I find that strange. Did you try phoning and emailing the company? I would have tried both. It’s highly unlikely the company would have ignored an email from you. Hotwire’s contact details are on this Web page.

Hotwire may be difficult to reach, in the sense that its phone agents are difficult to understand or that its e-mail responses suggest it didn’t bother reading your message, but I can’t imagine a company its size is inaccessible.

I contacted Hotwire on your behalf. It got in touch with your hotel and arranged to have your second charge refunded. Hotwire also offered you a $25 credit for the inconvenience.

Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the host of “What You Get For The Money: Vacations” on the Fine Living Network. E-mail him at celliott@ngs.org.

© 2008 Christopher Elliott ... Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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