By Christopher Elliott Travel columnist
Tribune Media Services
updated 6/22/2011 8:49:36 AM ET 2011-06-22T12:49:36
travel troubleshooter

Q: I was recently looking for a hotel for three nights in Rosemont, Ill. Hotwire soon started sending me emails about "lower hotel rates" in Rosemont. So I found one I liked and booked it.

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When I received the hotel conformation it was in Elk Grove, Ill., not Rosemont. I immediately emailed Hotwire.

"After reviewing your reservation, I confirmed that the hotel that is booked is not within the area map provided during your search," a representative named Brandy G. replied. "For your convenience, I have sent this reservation up for review to our research department. They will contact you back within 7 to 10 business days in regards to changing this reservation."

Great, right? That's what I thought. I asked if they could just change my reservation to a hotel in Rosemont for the dates I reserved or credit my account for a future booking. This was all done several weeks before the booked dates.

However, when they contacted me back they said that all sales are final and refused my request. I was unable to use the hotel so I am now out $142. I contacted Discover Card, the credit card I used for the reservation, and they replied that Hotwire says all sales are final. Thanks for any ideas you can give me.
Loretta Krahn, Mountain Lake, Minn.

A: Hotwire should have sold you a hotel in Rosemont — not Elk Grove. It can take 20 minutes to drive between the cities (they're on opposite sides of Chicago's O'Hare International Airport).

If you'd booked your hotel room by visiting Hotwire, you'd probably be out of luck. The site, which allows you to select a neighborhood but doesn't reveal the hotel until you've paid for it, is reasonably clear when it comes to the areas where you might be assigned a hotel room.

But this booking didn't originate on its site. It started with an email that promised a room in Rosemont. The response you received from "Brandy G." looks canned. Her response — and Hotwire's ensuing rejection — would have been appropriate if you'd booked through the site. But you didn't.

It's difficult to break the form-letter cycle. That's because customer service representatives typically receive so many complaints, they only have seconds to review your gripe and draw a response, which is normally a cut-and-paste reply. An appeal to a manager — either by phone or in writing — might have helped Hotwire see the error of its ways.

In fairness to the company, it is possible that somewhere along the booking path, Hotwire disclosed that it was actually selling you a room within a certain geographical area. Still, it shouldn't have offered a room in a specific city if it didn't intend to sell you one.

Next time you buy a room through an "opaque" site like Hotwire or Priceline, check the terms of your purchase, even if you think you know what you're getting. You can never be too careful.

I contacted Hotwire on your behalf. A representative told me there had been an error in the way the company communicated with you when you called to complain about the hotel location. It issued a full refund and promised to work on its maps, to make sure this doesn't happen again.

© 2011 Christopher Elliott ... Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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