Even though she prepays for a hotel room on Hotwire.com, Elke Rist gets half of what she's promised: just one bed and quarters the size of a "jail cell." It will cost her twice as much as the room she reserved. Can the hotel do that?
Q: I just returned from London, where I had a reservation at the Park hotel. I had booked the room through Hotwire.com, and was very disappointed with the way things turned out.
My son and I arrived in London after a long travel day, and when we got to our hotel, we were told that they had a reservation for only one person, even though I had an email from the Park Hotel confirming a room with two twin beds.
I looked at the "single" room they assigned us and realized that it was not big enough for my son and me. It was about the size of a jail cell.
I argued that we booked and paid for two people. I showed the clerk our confirmation from Hotwire on paper and online. He, in turn, showed me a handwritten booking for one person. I spent three hours talking to the clerk and calling a Hotwire support line in England, but no one could find our record with the confirmation number that Hotwire had supplied us.
Needless to say, the hotel wouldn't budge, and referred us to another property for the first night. I was told they had a double room available the next day at the Park Hotel, but that we had to pay an additional 20 pounds per day for it.
In addition to the $375 I paid Hotwire, I had to cough up $159 for the first night at another hotel. Then the Park Hotel added a $162 surcharge for a double room. To add insult to injury, the Park Hotel was a toxic waste dump. Never in my imagination would I have expected a hotel so filthy. Help! -- Elke Rist, Chico, Calif.
A: What a nightmare. Your hotel should have had a double room for you. Hotwire guarantees it. "All rooms booked on Hotwire will accommodate the appropriate number of guests in each room, based on the total number of guests you provided and the number of rooms you requested," it says on its site.
So if your confirmation said two beds, then your room should have had two beds.
Hotwire doesn't work like other online travel agencies. You agree to a nightly rate, but don't find out the hotel's name until you prepay for it. So there would have been no way of avoiding the Park Hotel.
I'm surprised Hotwire sells the Park hotel. The reviews of this property speak for themselves: "without daylight," "Hell in London" and "Avoid like the plague" -- those all come courtesy of TripAdvisor.com, a site that, ironically, is owned by Hotwire's parent company, Expedia.
You did almost everything you could have to avoid a misunderstanding with the Park hotel. You asked for, and received, an email confirming your double room. You phoned Hotwire when the room was unavailable. You spoke with a hotel representative about the misunderstanding.
You might have asked for a supervisor at some point. Taking the referral to another hotel -- a hotel you had to pay extra for -- was the easy way out for the Park hotel. But I understand why you wouldn't have fought it. After a long flight, who would want to camp out in the lobby of a "toxic dump" until you get the service you were promised?
I think you could have leaned on Hotwire a little more. The online agency could have found you a room at another hotel in London, allowing you to avoid the Park Hotel altogether. If it couldn't, I might have gone for broke, finding another room on my own and then disputing the charges on your card.
Your experience illustrates the promise and peril of buying a hotel room through a discount site like Hotwire. Yes, you can find a deal -- but at what kind of a hotel?
I contacted Hotwire on your behalf. It refunded you $321, the amount you had to pay for the extra room and the double-room surcharge. It also offered you a $187 credit toward your next Hotwire purchase.
Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the host of "What You Get For The Money: Vacations" on the Fine Living Network. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(c) 2009 Christopher Elliott. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.