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Friday, December 03, 2004

When an online hotel discount site promises what it doesn't

A Four Star is a Three Star is a Make-it-Up-As-You-Go-Along Star Hotel

I have been booking hotels online since I first began using the Internet. When you run an Interent safety group, you try and find ways to get quality travel packages and hotels and still save money. I have my favorite sites and some I use only in a crunch.

I've been meaning to write about the problems associated with online auction and discount hotel websites, especially when they advertise the star-ratings of hotels. You can, on certain websites, select a hotel based upon their star-ratings and, in the case of HotWire, are only given the name of the hotel after it is booked and paid for.

I am going to be in DC for an FTC workshop, interestingly enough. I spend my entire life protecting consumers from Internet fraud, deceptive practices, abuse and misrepresentations. I feel cheated. I didn't save any money over what I would have paid for that same hotel from the hotel chain website itself, once the hotwire service fees are factored in.

I am now both frustrated and angry and will both write about this and see what charges, if any, should be brought by complaint to the FTC and other consumer protection agencies. I apologize in advance to the hotel itself. It is a nice little hotel, a nice place to stay, a good location. It's just not a four star hotel. I paid for a 4 star hotel and expected to get one.

Hotwire disclosed on their website that they had a 4-star hotel available in DC for $100 per night. When you click on their ratings guide, you discover that they include examples of certain hotel chains in each category. The Crowne Plaza Hotel chain was included on their chart as a 3-1/2 star rating example. The 4-star rating example included Wyndam, Hilton and Westin chain hotels. This is all in red bold type.

An astericks follows the column header "examples" (all of which were in bold red type) and refers to very light grey print below the chart (on a white background), much smaller than the red bold type, and not bolded. It says:

"*Examples only. Hotwire does not guarantee you will stay in one of the hotels listed here. Property classes can vary within the same chain. Some hotel partners have properties in more than one star-rating category."

You can drill down one more level, in much darker and slightly larger type "Learn more about Hotwire hotel star rating." That sends you to a pop-up page that says:

"How We Rate Hotels
To help you book the right hotel, we constantly work to ensure that our hotel ratings and ratings guide are accurate and up-to-date. Our star ratings reflect the level of overall service, amenities and facilities that you can expect. When evaluating hotels, we consider:
• Recognized industry sources and ratings systems - including Mobil, AAA, Fodors and Zagat.
• Visits by Hotwire Hotel Team representatives.
• Customer feedback. We ask customers to tell us about their stay at a Hotwire hotel."

When I checked both Orbitz and Expedia, the Hamilton Crowne Plaza Hotel in DC was rated a 3-star hotel. (Not the four star rating given at Hotwire, and not the 3-1/2 star reference in their rating guide for the Crowne Plaza chain.)

I will be checking the other ratings agencies when they open on Monday morning. The hotel itself told me it is a 3 star hotel (although Intercontinental hotels don't normally rate themselves using stars).

Is the light grey disclaimer enough to warn people? If it were more prominent would it be enough or is it difficent legally? Shouldn't consumers be able to rely on a star rating and representations made by travel sites?

I think it's time we do something about this. Being able to create ratings that suit the discount site, rather than accurately reflect an apples to apples comparison.

Is there anything reliable behind the ratings? Is the fact that consumers enjoyed their stay at the hotel enough to rachet it up a few stars?

If not, there should be. Watch this space...I'll let you know what happens.

BTW, the people at the Hamilton Crowne Plaza Hotel were incredibly nice to deal with, caring and concerned about what occurred at Hotwire. If I could make this case without naming them, I would have.

my 2 cents.