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You call that a two-star hotel?

By Christopher Elliott, Tribune Media Services
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • A traveler books a two-star hotel through Hotwire.com
  • The hotel he ends up with is widely reviewed as a dump
  • Hotwire initially denies his request to change and eventually grants an "exception"
  • The company stopped selling the hotel because it no longer met its standards
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(Tribune Media Services) -- When Ed Boston books a two-star hotel in Flint, Michigan, he expects a reliable property with minimal amenities -- not the dump he ends up in. He asks his online travel agency if he can change hotels, and it says "no." What now?

Q: I bought a hotel through Hotwire that I'd really rather not stay at. A few weeks ago, I requested a two-star property in Flint, Michigan. Hotwire gave me a nonrefundable, nonchangeable room at a Days Inn property.

A friend of mine in the area told me about how bad that hotel is. They had tried to stay there but had checked out within the hour because it was filthy and the staff was uncooperative. I did some research on reviews of this property and all the reviews I found, except one, rated it very poor for the same reasons.

I contacted Hotwire, but they were of no help and referred me to the Web site to contact them by e-mail. I have not asked for a refund, but only to be allowed to upgrade to a higher-rated facility in the area.

Hotwire's standard response to all my e-mail is that it meets the two-star requirements they have set. I have tried explaining to them that the star rating is not in question, but the fitness of the facilities. Can you help me?

-- Ed Boston, Woodland Hills, California

A: Hotwire is right -- and wrong. It had every right to assign a hotel of its choosing, but not to that particular property.

Hotwire's terms, which you agreed to when you booked your hotel, are clear. You get to choose the city and a "star" rating based on certain amenities, but the site then reserves a nonrefundable room in a hotel of its choosing.

By the way, the Hotwire ratings system doesn't get any lower than two stars, which is described as an "economy" establishment with basic features like an in-room coffeemaker, cable TV and an alarm clock. Hotwire does, however, promise its accommodations will be "reliable," which your hotel arguably was not.

Although I usually recommend contacting a company by e-mail, there's no reason a large, well-established company like Hotwire shouldn't also be able to handle your grievance by phone. I find the fact that they insisted you contact them by e-mail to be problematic. What if you don't have access to e-mail at that moment?

Your case and several recent ones like it, underscore the need for a universally recognized hotel ratings system. When an online travel agency rates the product it sells, there's an inevitable conflict of interest. An independent grading mechanism would serve everyone better. But for now, these imperfect star-ratings are the only real option, since no nationally recognized ratings system exists in the United States.

Hotwire's form responses suggest it didn't take the time to review your written complaint. You weren't griping about the nonrefundability of your room, but about the room itself. A quick look at some of the customer reviews of the property would have revealed that you weren't just whining. You could have appealed the decision in writing (many companies give rebuttals to form responses a higher priority in the system) or, as a last resort, disputed this charge on your credit card.

It turns out neither of those were necessary. I contacted Hotwire on your behalf, and it allowed you to change hotels as an "exception." It also stopped selling the hotel because of the volume of complaints, which, according to a company spokesman, "led us to believe that its overall quality was no longer up to Hotwire's standards."