January 16, 2021

The Haggler: On Hotwire, Lost in the Stars of a Hotel’s Rating

Our question this week is from a man who handled his Internet-inflamed frustration the best way that one can. He didn’t get mad, or go nuts. He just collected a lot of evidence.

Q. On Nov. 8, I visited Hotwire’s Web site to reserve a room in Ithaca, N.Y., where I was going for business. I used the site’s “opaque” system, which allows you to specify the quality of hotel where you’d like to stay but doesn’t say where you’ll end up until you’ve committed to pay. But you can get a look at names of a handful of hotels in each category.

In Ithaca, Hotwire’s 3-star list looked fine — Holiday Inn Express, Hampton, Best Western, etc. So I typed in that I’d like two nights at a 3-star hotel, which would cost $135 a night. To my surprise, I “won” two nights at the Clarion Hotel. I’ve stayed there before and found it pretty awful. I would never have bid on a 3-star hotel had I known that the Clarion was in the mix.

Which it should not have been, according to Hotwire itself. The Clarion appears on the company’s list of Ithaca hotels where you might land when specifying a 2.5-star hotel. When I later double-checked this through an online chat with a Hotwire customer representative, I was told that the Clarion in Ithaca is actually a 2-star property. In another online chat, I was told it’s a 2.5-star property.

Regardless, when I called Hotwire and asked for a refund, a rep and his manager refused. They explained that the Clarion in Ithaca is a 3-star property, and in subsequent e-mails the company did not seem to care that its Web site and two online reps say otherwise. I say Hotwire sold me a 2- or 2.5-star property while charging me a 3-star rate. I actually stayed at the Courtyard when I went to Ithaca, but nobody at Hotwire will listen when I argue that I deserve a refund.

Care to see if they’ll listen to you?


Potomac, Md.

A. The Haggler contacted Hotwire and sent along a copy of one of Mr. Bruns’s online chats. It includes this exchange:

Mr. Bruns: That property in Ithaca is a 2.5 star? So if I bid on a 3-star, there’s no chance I will get the Clarion, right?

Hotwire: Yes. If it is under our 3-star category you are guaranteed to get a 3-star hotel.

What happened here? Garrett Whittemore, a Hotwire spokesman, said that while the Clarion chain gets 2.5 stars, Hotwire sometimes awards higher or lower grades to individual properties. “Many hotel chains are independently owned and operated, so some offer more or less amenities and services than others, and that will impact their class levels appropriately,” the spokesman wrote in an e-mail. “Although in general Clarions fall into the 2.5-star category, there are many that qualify for the 3-star class in our rating system, and the Clarion in Ithaca is one of them.”

So what’s with the reps who say otherwise in online chats? A mistake, wrote Mr. Whittemore. He said that one of those reps had already been “educated” — which somehow sounds vaguely ominous — so that this wouldn’t happen again. Maybe Hotwire can educate its Web site, too. The Haggler visited it and went through some of the same motions that Mr. Bruns did. Up pops the Clarion in the company’s list of Ithaca hotels where you might land if you opt for a 2.5-star stay. Maybe the site is referring here to the Clarion as a chain, but it sure doesn’t make that clear.

Given the confusion, Hotwire said it would refund Mr. Bruns’s money. That’s nice. But here’s a metaquestion: Why are the ministrations of the Haggler necessary in a case like this, where it’s clear that a customer has been given bad information, and thus has a legitimate grievance? Mr. Bruns had every scrap of evidence he needed, including screen grabs. He also had a receipt from the Courtyard. Why aren’t companies like Hotwire supple enough to truly listen to people like Mr. Bruns and accommodate them, without a nudge?

No doubt many people call Hotwire each year and demand refunds, for lame or laughable reasons. No doubt it’s harder than it looks to sort the credible complaints from the noncredible ones. But as the Haggler has written before, if we’re headed for an economy dominated by the service sector, why can’t we do service really well?

The Haggler posed these questions to the outside public-relations representative who handles media inquiries for Hotwire. That’s right — Hotwire’s spokesman has a P.R. rep, and a media-shy one at that, who did not want to be quoted. He promised to cogitate and follow up. Did the Haggler expect a thoughtful, philosophical answer? Yes, he did, proving once again that he is an idealistic fool. The P.R. rep offered nothing thoughtful at all and instead claimed that because Mr. Bruns had used a different name during his online chat, the company was never able to piece his entire story together until the Haggler stepped in.

This is nonsense. Mr. Bruns e-mailed all the details to Hotwire a week after this mini-debacle, in November. Hotwire had the entire tale months ago.

So as perverse as this may sound, take comfort in this episode, all you aggrieved consumers: on occasion, when the Haggler asks a company a question, he can’t get a straight answer, either.

E-mail: haggler@nytimes.com. Keep it brief and family-friendly, include your hometown and go easy on the caps-lock key. Letters may be edited for clarity and length.

Article source: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/10/your-money/on-hotwire-lost-in-the-stars-of-a-hotels-rating.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

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