Falling stars in Puerto Vallarta

/ Source: Tripso.com

When she books a room at an all-inclusive resort in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, Denise Abbott believes she's paying for a four-star resort. But a day later, the hotel mysteriously loses a star. Should her travel agent, Travelocity, find another four-star hotel for her? And what do all those stars and diamonds mean, anyway?

Q: We just returned from a five-day vacation at an all-inclusive resort in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. We booked it through Travelocity after thoroughly researching our options.

I am a little bit of a hotel snob (I like a clean room), so we had narrowed our search to “four-star” properties or better. In Puerto Vallarta, Travelocity offered several choices. After reading travelers’ reviews, I printed copies of the descriptions from the Web site, and we settled on the Canto del Sol Plaza Vallarta.

Over the following weeks, we spent more time online looking up tours. In the process, I discovered that the resort had been demoted from four stars to three. When I called Travelocity to find out what was going on, a representative insisted the hotel had always been a three-star property.

Travelocity asked me to fax proof that the hotel had earlier had a four-star rating. I did that. Still, the only resolution Travelocity offered was to change our reservation to a different hotel, of our choosing, but we would have to pay any additional expense. In the end we shelled out an extra $138.56 to stay at the four-star Marival Resort and Suites Nuevo Vallarta.

I don’t think we should have had to pay for the “upgrade,” since a four-star hotel is what we booked in the first place. What do you think?

— Denise Abbott, Elyria, Ohio

A: The first thing your have to understand is that star ratings are almost completely meaningless.

Travelocity’s stars are just a shorthand way of representing the amenities and services that a property offers. To the best of my knowledge, there are no independently audited, state-sanctioned “star” ratings for Mexico — or for the United States, for that matter.

Yeah, you’ve got your Mobil stars and your AAA diamonds (in fact, Travelocity lists the AAA diamond rating wherever it’s available). But those rating systems are problematic, too — a topic for another column, perhaps. Besides, we’re not even talking about those ratings, which at least have some methodology.

According to its Web site, Travelocity awards stars to resorts and hotels “based upon the most up-to-date research conducted by Travelocity, in accordance with industry standards.” Considering that neither the hotel industry nor the interactive travel business has many written standards, those stars could mean almost anything. Three, four — even a whole galaxy of stars wouldn’t change the services the hotel offers or the reviews you read.

If it were my vacation, I would have ignored the demotion. Then again, I’m not a hotel snob. I like a clean room, yes, but to me a hotel is just a place to sleep, so amenities are not all that important.

But I do understand your concern, and I think Travelocity’s response was less than stellar. It wouldn’t have taken much time or effort for the representative you spoke with to research your query (without making you fax your proof). Had he done so, he would have seen that Travelocity did indeed change its internal rating the day after you made your reservation.

After that, the correct course of action was simple: upgrade you to a “four-star” hotel at no additional charge. In fact, after I brought your case to Travelocity’s attention, it refunded you the difference between the cost of your original hotel and the cost of the upgraded resort. It also sent you a $50 voucher to use on your next purchase.

Next time you book a hotel, pay closer attention to the features of the hotel and to the reviews written by actual guests. The truth is out there, and it isn’t in the stars.

Christopher Elliott is National Geographic Traveler's ombudsman and a nationally syndicated columnist who specializes in solving your travel problems. Got a trip that needs fixing? Send him a or visit his . Your question may be published in a future story. Want to sound off about a story? Try visiting .