Fiona Lau contacted me in a panic a few days ago. She'd booked a "three-star" hotel through Hotwire, which doesn't reveal the name of the hotel until you've paid for a non-refundable reservation by credit card, and ended up at a Clarion Hotel property in Pennsylvania she didn't want.
"I looked at the picture from the official Clarion website, and the hotel doesn't just look old, the family suite picture that they displayed is showing an extremely old room with patches on the wall," she says.
A check with Tripadvisor, Priceline and Expedia revealed the same property was rated as only a 2.5-star. It appeared that Hotwire was shorting her by half a star.
Accusations of star "inflation" aren't new, and they stem from the fact that there are no universally-recognized star ratings. But over time, the response of opaque sites like Hotwire and Priceline, who stand accused of faking a star or two, have become more intransigent.
(As a reminder, these sites don't sell rooms the normal way, disclosing their name and location. The identity of the properties is a mystery; it's only described by star rating and neighborhood until the booking is complete.)
Lau called the hotel to see if she could cancel her reservation. "They told me there is nothing they can do, since my reservation is non-refundable," she says. Then she phoned Hotwire. Same answer.
I asked Hotwire if it could explain the rejection.
True, the Clarion she was booked in ranked as a 2.5-star property on Expedia, says spokesman Garrett Whittemore. But it's ranked a three-star on Orbitz and Travelocity.
"The Hotwire rating system takes the average of these three external benchmarks and uses that as the starting point for generating the rating on our site," he explained. "We then use input from our own customers who have stayed at the property as well. These reviews can only move the rating down, never up. "
In fact, 82 percent of Hotwire customers who stayed at that Clarion property and submitted a post-stay survey either agree with the three-star rating that Hotwire is using, or feel like it should be moved up, he says.
"That's a very positive number in general, and is especially good when considering the nature of surveys and how customers use them," says Whittemore.
And then Hotwire gave Lau the same assurance it offers every guest when they have a star-related gripe: If you have a problem when you arrive, just call us. We're here to help.
So just for once, I thought I'd follow through. I let Lau know about Hotwire's reply and its promise to help if the Clarion didn't live up to its three-star billing. And she went to the hotel.
"Initially, the front desk gave me a tiny room just enough to fit a full-size bed, a coffee table and chair and a fridge," she says. "The bed is too small for two adults, so I asked for a bigger-sized bed, then the staff said they'd need to charge me for upgrade fee."
Hotels routinely assign their worst rooms to guests booking through opaque websites, because those guests are offered aggressive discounts by buying through either Hotwire or Priceline.
Lau picked up the phone to call Hotwire. But before she could place the call, a representative found her a larger room with two beds.
But all was not well. The bathtub in the room was covered in mold. She called the front desk again and asked them to clean it. After several requests, a hotel employee scrubbed the tub.
All done? Not quite.
"At night I felt something had bitten my ankle," she told me. "I found five insect bite marks on my ankles and my upper thigh."
She left a bad review about the property online.
So what's going on here? I think Hotwire knows that customers who quibble about a half-star and are told they're wrong are resigned to accept their fate. They've already been denied several times, so they expect that a call to Hotwire when they're at the hotel will yield the same response.
Besides, what's the likely path to a better outcome? Will a manager be called, and will it result in a confrontation ("What's wrong, my hotel not good enough for ya?"). No, most guests just accept the star deficit and move on.
And that, my friends, is exactly why the star problem will never really be solved.
Christopher Elliott is the author of "Scammed: How to Save Your Money and Find Better Service in a World of Schemes, Swindles, and Shady Deals" (Wiley). He's also the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the co-founder of the Consumer Travel Alliance, a nonprofit organization that advocates for travelers. Read more tips on his blog, elliott.org or e-mail him at email@example.com. Christopher Elliott receives a great deal of reader mail, and though he answers them as quickly as possible, your story may not be published for several months because of a backlog of cases.)