By Christopher Elliott Travel columnist
Tribune Media Services
updated 12/8/2011 8:13:07 AM ET 2011-12-08T13:13:07
travel troubleshooter

Q: I just booked a hotel room in New Orleans through Hotwire. It seemed like a great deal. The listing was for a 4.5 star hotel. I started looking around their website, trying to determine what the possibilities were and by looking at the "hotel plus car" section I was able to see that there seemed to be three nice choices of 4.5 star hotels in the area the listing was in.

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I was specifically trying to avoid the Le Pavillon Hotel and was glad to see it was not a possibility because it was listed as a four-star hotel.

We booked the room and we got the Le Pavillon. As soon as I received the confirmation email I called Hotwire. I was sure this was just a mistake. The first woman I spoke to listened and put me on hold to "try and help me."

She came back and started quoting star ratings from other websites and claimed that they used an average to arrive at the 4.5 star rating. I told her that sounded reasonable, but that the Hotwire website identifies the property as having 4 stars and that I booked a 4.5-star hotel. She agreed, but could do nothing.

I asked to speak to a manager. That conversation was a complete waste of time. He explained that Expedia rates the hotels in the vacation area of the Hotwire website and that they do not have to abide by them.

I explained that I felt that was ridiculous because it says "Hotwire" at the top of the page and that I didn't feel I was being unreasonable in feeling confident that I wouldn't be stuck with Le Pavillon when booking a 4.5 star hotel. I did not ask for a refund. I just asked to be switched to an actual 4.5 star hotel. He said that they would do nothing to help us until we checked in.

Normally this wouldn't be a big deal, but we are traveling without our children for the very first time since having them four years ago, and we really wanted this to be a great vacation. This hotel is so, so far from a 4.5 star ... gorgeous lobby, but the rooms haven't been redone in a long time. Can you give me any guidance as to how to try and resolve this?
Anna Johnson, Pensacola, Fla.

A: Hotwire should follow its own star rating system. It's bad enough that there's no nationally recognized rating system for hotel room. But if a company classifies a room as a four-star property, the least you can do is expect it to be consistent about the review.

It helps to understand something about the way Hotwire handles hotel bookings. As a so-called "opaque" site, you can pick the city and certain characteristics of the property, like the level of amenities you want. But the name of the hotel isn't revealed until you've paid for the room, and all purchases are nonrefundable. In other words, you can't pick the hotel.

Still, it was reasonable of you to expect Hotwire to be consistent with its star ratings between products (in your case, between packages and stand-alone hotel purchases).

Calling Hotwire was a complete act of futility. I'm given the impression that Hotwire's customer service agents are instructed to never issue refunds or changes unless authorized by a supervisor. And the supervisor to whom you spoke apparently didn't listen to anything you had to say.

I recommended that you put your grievance in writing, but you were met with even more form responses from Hotwire. How frustrating. The only way out would have been a lengthy credit card dispute, the outcome of which is far from guaranteed.

I contacted Hotwire on your behalf. It refunded your purchase.

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


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