Will a Hotwire star dispute ruin my visit to Milwaukee?

When Brian Cross scored a “four star” hotel in Milwaukee recently through Hotwire, he assumed he’d be staying in an upscale property. But as I’ve noted in the past, Hotwire’s stars don’t necessarily compare to other established ratings systems.

And Hotwire — which doesn’t reveal the name of the hotel until after you’ve paid for it online — assigned him to The Ambassador in downtown Milwaukee. (Here’s how it stacks up on TripAdvisor and Google.) Cross also made a second booking at what he thought was a three-star hotel, with similarly disappointing results. He got a room at the Best Western.

“The Ambassador hotel is on the outskirts of downtown approximately 20 blocks away from the Milwaukee River, in a less than desirable neighborhood,” he says. “I would submit that due to the conditions of the neighborhood and the age of the hotel, you would not find many who would consider this location to be a four star hotel.”

So, how to get Hotwire to undo this?

Cross started with an email to Hotwire:

For your company to list the Best Western in Milwaukee as a three star hotel and the Ambassador in Milwaukee last week as a four star hotel and stick me in these two places, I can truly GUARANTEE you will never get my business again.

Dealing with William Shatner on Priceline seems better and better every trip. This is a shame as Hotwire used to be a great way to get a deal on a hotel, this is no longer the case.

You can also rest assured I will yell to the heavens on the internet on Yelp and TripAdvisor and Twitter about the quality of hotel that you have stuck me in two trips in a row.

In closing, to say that your ratings are deceptive would truly be an understatement.

Probably not the best way to start the conversation, but his frustration is understandable. Cross believes — as some other Hotwire customers do — that its star ratings are rigged. (I’m puzzled by why anyone would make a second reservation when they aren’t happy with the first, but let’s move forward.)

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Hotwire replied with a cordial form letter that acknowledged his disappointment. It also explained how Hotwire comes up with its star ratings.

Then it added,

We constantly review our hotel partners’ star ratings to ensure we provide the most accurate and up-to-date information. I can assure you we last evaluated both hotels on December 10, 2011, and Hotwire is confident the star rating is accurate.

Cross responded with a few details about his hotel assignments. And he also answered my question about why he’d made two reservations. Turns out he was a long-time Hotwire customer, and believed getting a room at the Ambassador was just a fluke.

He told Hotwire:

#1 The Ambassador Hotel is Approximately 20 blocks from the center of downtown and frankly is not in a very safe or desirable area, to call this a Downtown hotel is a great stretch by any definition. It is also a very aged hotel, that has undergone minimal renovations at best. The ratings on various sites are also less than promising to say the least.

#2 The Best Western Towne hotel is by no means a three star hotel, it is also an aged hotel, while this hotel is in downtown, I have walked by it many many times, I would in no way consider it a three star hotel, it is a two star hotel at best, I only need to look at the my own perception of it backed up by the innumerable negative ratings on your parent company’s own sites including Expedia and Hotels.com.

But Hotwire wouldn’t undo either reservation, saying only that if Cross had a problem when he checked in, he could contact the company.

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That provoked the following response from him:

It’s a shame corporations never truly learn crisis management skills. just yesterday the Chicago Tribune published a negative story about your business, and here you continue the same practice of deceptive behavior.

This evening I may actually enjoy spreading this to my innumerable amount of followers on Facebook and Especially Twitter. Thank you for your concern in this matter, please rest assured that I and most likely my friends will never do business with you again.

And that’s when Cross contacted me to see if I could help.

My initial reaction was that taking a different tone with Hotwire might have been more productive. Hotwire is always going to stand by its ratings system reflexively. But politely engaging with the company might have yielded better results.

The other issue: By complaining about two hotels in the same city, you run the risk of being dismissed as a “laundry list” complainer, and that lessens the effectiveness of your grievance (laundry listers gripe about everything and companies believe they are impossible to please).

Cross decided not to stay at The Ambassador, and wants to see if I can mediate his case with Hotwire. I’m not sure if this trip can be saved, since he’s already “no showed” for his room. But I’m willing to try. But should I?

(Photo: ifm uth/Flickr)

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at chris@elliott.org. Read more of Christopher's articles here.

  • y_p_w

    I looked up the hotels.  The Ambassador seems rather nice even if it is a bit old.  I remember staying in an older hotel once (the Allegro in Chicago) and even though the building looked old, it was well maintained and seemed like a really classy place to stay.  The prices for this hotel are generally pretty inexpensive, so I doubt he paid $200/night.  I’m guessing it was well under $100 per night.

    By the way, the Best Western link is for the Best Western PLUS Milwaukee Airport, which Priceline rates as three stars and looks like it from the photos.  Now Priceline rates the Best Western Inn Towne Milwaukee at 2 stars, and I see where he might not have liked it.  The decor looks cheesy and rather cramped.

    As for location, the map is always specified.  I looked at Hotwire’s downtown Milwaukee map, and the Ambassador is clearly within the area they define as downtown Milwaukee.

    I know of some pretty expensive places to stay in San Francisco that are a couple of blocks away from some really sketchy neighborhoods.  Try the downtown Marriott or any of the other hotels on Market Street.  The hotels are fine, but there’s some interesting activity on the streets at night.  That wouldn’t stop me from ever staying there if I had to or recommending a hotel to someone else.

  • jldown2

    I just got home from a stay at the Ambassador. Like Mr. Cross, I booked through Hotwire–and like Mr. Cross, I was disappointed in the hotel selection that I found. We stuck with the reservation, however, realizing that we couldn’t find a better hotel at a better price. While The Ambassador probably wouldn’t meet everyone’s description of a four star hotel, it certainly meets Hotwire’s. (Really, I just lower my expectations by about half a star when I book there and things usually end up on par.) 

    As Mr. Cross said, the hotel is older, but it has been remodeled. Our room was spacious and well appointed. The furniture, bedding, and decorations were new. The bathroom was a bit small and the tub itself was older–but it is an old hotel. The hotel is out of downtown a bit and several trip-advisor and similar reviews suggest it is not in the best neighborhood. To this, I would say phooey. It is not in a gentrified, financial district type neighborhood, but one that is lived in and is very diverse (though some people seem to take any non-white majority neighborhoods as “not the best.” 

    Additionally, the hotel offers several benefits that others lack. There is free parking (some charge up to $25–in Milwaukee! Really?). There is a free shuttle that takes you anywhere downtown or to the airport. Internet is free (others I looked at charged $15 a day). 

    I realize that I’ve ended up writing more or less a review of the hotel, but felt the need to “defend it” a bit. It’s pretty common knowledge that Hotwire’s star system doesn’t line up to the rest of the country’s. At this point, it feels like folks should be in on that and accept that they’re still getting a solid room for a great price. 

  • As I’m writing this, it’s 70-30 against the OP. Innumerable followers? Yell to the heavens on the internet? Really? Some cheese with your whine? No one likes a loudmouth and the polls confirm. If he’s had good experiences with Hotwire in the past, then he should consider himself lucky and decide whether sometimes getting bad properties is worth it in the end. But what reason would Hotwire have to work with him, after he’s already tried to do his worst? Am I missing something? Hotwire is like roulette. Sometimes your number comes up. Most of the time, it probably doesn’t. Any rational adult should realize that…


  • djp98374

    When working with hotwire you need to closely look at the map and log onto google maps and find the dots of hotels and compare maps in what the possibilities are.

  • bc

    He bought on an opaque website, it’s the price you pay for not knowing the hotel up front. 

  • LFH0

    The issues of being on the “outskirts” of downtown and being a “less than desirable neighborhood” are not valid criticisms.

    If the map used by Hotwire shows an area larger than that which one would want to stay, then don’t bid on that area for it is quite possible that a hotel will be booked in an area of the map beyond which the bidder will want to stay. In this case, book at a site where one can specify the location, not an opaque site. At the same time, provide feedback to Hotwire that no bid was submitted because of the belief that the specified area is too large (and if enough people provide that feedback then maybe Hotwire will subdivide the area into multiple zones).

    The “undesirable” neighborhood is also not a good basis for complaint. Everyone has their own sense of what is a good neighborhood, and what is not. Some people make a trade-off between the goodness of a neighborhood and the price. In other cases, people may have prejudices that hotels in neighborhoods populated be people different from them are unacceptable . . . but what about people that want to stay within that population group? Hotwire cannot not imagine the idiosyncrasies of every individual, nor can Hotwire (or for that matter, any travel provider) be expected to scout out safety and security, especially when travelers may nonetheless want to travel to such areas.

    The only real complaint I see is that Hotwire may be using a self-serving and non-objective means of rating their hotels. That’s the issue that Christopher Elliot should pursue on a general basis. meanwhile, Mr. Cross should not use opaque websites that do not specify locations if he’s unwilling to accept hotels within the specified boundaries.

  • TonyA_says

    I don’t understand why people keep on using opaque vending machines and expect not to get burned every time. Isn’t that the definition of insanity?

  • Raven_Altosk

    That’s the price you pay for dealing with an opaque website that generates its own star ratings…

  • MikeInCtown

    My concern here is what does the site list the hotel as? If they list other properties as 3 and 4 stars then there is no reason to complain. They are well within the specified boundaries, so the OP would have nobody but himself to blame. This specific reason is why there are boards dedicated for bidding sites such as priceline -Also why these sites also have known hotels listed

  • Chris_In_NC

    Sorry, no sympathy here. He booked the 1st room through Hotwire and was disappointed with the result. So what does he do? He books a 2nd room, is also disappointed and then complains BEFORE he stays at either property? Sheesh!

    Perhaps this article should be titled “How not to write a complaint letter.” Frankly, if I were a CSR reading that letter, I would send a form letter too. When you start off by saying “I can truly GUARANTEE you will never get my business again” why would a company want to work with you? As a business owner, I would adopt the Herb Kelleher principle and write you off as a customer.

    Then you threaten to complain on Yelp and Tripadvisor. Did I miss something but you haven’t even stayed at either properties? You are going to blast a hotel through no fault of the hotel because you have a vendetta against Hotwire?

    I’m not a big fan of Hotwire, but it works for some travelers. Yes, their “star” rating isn’t the same as AAA or Mobile, but is pretty consistent within Hotwire.

    The more I think about this one, please don’t mediate this. I am really bothered by the points I made above.

  • Jan

    When you book through those sites you take your chances.  I prefer to pay so I know what I’m getting.

  • BillCCC

    It looks like he received exactly what he asked for not just what he expected. Threatening the company with bad publicity in your first email is probably a mistake. As far as his complaint goes I did not see any real criticism of the properties.

  • Nancy Marine Dickinson

    This OP lost me when he STARTED with an abrasive and threatening manner.

    And his “innumerable” followers on Facebook and Twitter?  Who does he think he is?  Chris Elliott?

    Older hotels don’t always mean “low quality” hotels.  I just did a tour this summer of some “older hotels” in the the Rocky Mountains. Beautiful places, every single one of them.  They aren’t the Hilton, Marriott or Four Seasons by any stretch of the imagination but every one of them were luxurious (by Old West standards).

    Sounds to me as though the OP here wanted the Four Seasons at a Motel 6 price and got hot under the collar when that didn’t happen.

    I’ve only used these opaque sites once in my life and it was over ten years ago.  Booked a room in Memphis, ended up with a Towne Suites, $40 a night.  My husband, son and I were all thrilled with the result.

    I believe lowering one’s expectations should be the first rule of booking through any of these sites.

  • Nancy Marine Dickinson

    Wish I could “like” this one more than once.  The OP might have been pleasantly surprised had he gone through with the original booking.  Stranger things have happened.

  • Let Brian Cross know that he can actually find out the “innumerable” number of friends on Facebook and Twitter just by looking at his profile. It’s easy really!

    But no, steer clear. He got what he paid for.

  • y_p_w

    Yeah – I’d think the start of his first letter kind of started the dominoes falling where he wasn’t going to get any kind of resolution.

    I remember reading about a nightmare customer at a well known restaurant in my area.  There was one customer who simply started complaining about everything from the food to the service and decor.  The last straw was that this particular customer started complaining that other people in the dining room were dressed casually (around here someone might go to a nice restaurant in a T-shirt and jeans) and that was it.  The owner approached this customer and said if he was unsatisfied he could leave right then without paying.  I seem to remember that he sort of shut up at that point and didn’t leave.

    Those star ratings Hotwire gives are rather different than other companies.  The Ambassador is 3.5 on Priceline while the Best Western Towne Inn is 2.  Still – I’m looking at the photos of the Ambassador and I would have no problem staying there.  You can book it through non-opaque means for less than $70, so I’m pretty sure it must have been a good price.

  • sirwired

    I totally would have blown him off too.  A customer that starts a complaint with saying you’ll never use their business again, and close with the classic “I’m going to tell all my friends; neener, neener, neener” is going to get their complaint tossed in the circular file.

    You don’t have to kiss butt to get quality customer service, but unrelenting hostility and sarcasm isn’t going to get you anywhere.

  • rarnold2000

    I can’t think of a better way to express “deserved” dissatisfaction with a company then to spread the word among your friends every way you can.  There is nothing unfair or whiny about this. 

  • Asiansm Dan

    Why in the world the OP insist for 4* Hotels and get on Hotwire? The OP is irrational in his behavior. Learn the lesson. When you are ready to pay for a 4* hotels and up, behave like a 4* customer or you will be unhappy in those places.

  • My one experience with Hotwire in 2007 was enough for me to never use them again. Not only was the star rating inappropriate (it was a clearly outdated Holiday Inn), but the location was way outside town. When I discovered which hotel they’d selected, I realized I could’ve spent less money there (if I actually wanted to stay there!) using an Entertainment rate. Hotwire did nothing. I challenged the charge via AMEX and also got nowhere. Hotwire’s tone was rude and legalistic. You would’ve thought they’d at least match the Entertainment rate or offer a discount code on a future stay. Instead, the lost a customer for life.

  • jgb123

    Chris, Use your time for more important and realistic issues. He’s complaining about places he apparently hasn’t stayed at.  Looks like he’s looking for a certain type of place where to him “aged” and location doesn’t qualify.  He’s the loser, not Hotwire nor the hotels.

  • fedupgerry

    I stopped using Hotwire a long time ago.Their rates are definately no beter than on other sites that donot demand up-front, non-refundable payment.

  • Chasmosaur

    I’ll concur – in DC or NYC or SF, it’s “good block, bad block” – you can have a really nice neighborhood two blocks over from a really bad part of town.  It’s just how it works in bigger cities, especially in “downtown” areas that gentrify in specific locations.

  • Chasmosaur

    Mr. Cross –

    As an Internet professional, I can assure you that your social media followers are not actually innumerable.  Because they stick those numbers right up on your profile for everyone to see.

    As the most popular Brian Crosses in a Google search yield people with under 1,000 followers (the exception being “DJ Brian Cross, who has about 1,850, but he appears to be in Europe for the time being), I think Hotwire isn’t exactly quivering in its corporate boots.

    Unless, of course, Brian Cross is just a pseudonym, and you are actually one of these people – http://twitaholic.com/ But then, why would you be using Hotwire. It’s a conundrum…

  • J

    Let’s see…

    – “Give me what I want or I’ll never pay you again in the future.”- Snarky reference to competitor’s ad campaign
    – Threats to trash the company on the internet

    Yep, that should be the trifecta of the “You lose, you get nothing, good day sir.”

    Chris, don’t bother associating yourself with this customer.

  • Michael__K

    If you’re using an opaque site to book an “N”-star hotel, then you have to be prepared that on average you will be getting hotels that are below average for that star category.  That could mean the location is in a less desirable part of Hotwire’s area map, or it could mean the hotel is “aged”, or both.

    At least on the surface Hotwire’s star-ratings for these hotels do not seem to be so out of line:  The Ambassador is currently a 4-star according to both Expedia and Travelocity.  The Best Western is currently a 2.5 star on Expedia and a 3-star on Travelocity.

    So the OP should have known (if he checked) that the hotels he received were among the pool of hotels that probably met his search criteria.  Unless the map or amenities listed on Hotwire are inaccurate, I don’t see much basis for a complaint.

    I wonder if the fluke was that the OP was unusually fortunate with the opaque hotels he got through Hotwire in the past, and developed unrealistic expectations as a result?

  • I could be wrong but the last time I checked star ratings were not based on location.

    But he really lost me with his approach to Hotwire.  He already said they lost his business, why bother with him?

  • y_p_w

    Star ratings are generally based on amenities.  Have a full service restaurant of some sort and it probably becomes 3 stars.  I’ve even stayed at a few “3 stars” where there was only a limited selection menu with no specific restaurant area (the lobby seating was open) but where the rooms were really nice. I think that sort of splits the difference.  I have had a few disappointments when a “3 star” was a bit older with very small rooms (even smaller than many motel rooms I’ve stayed in), but I didn’t complain because I would have been paying about double for a hotel where I knew the name and location up front.

  • I do use Hotwire but have learned to only accept 3* or higher properties as they do tend to rate their listings higher than most.
    Also, I do believe that the initial salvo, if a consumer is unhappy, should be a firm but gentle response.  Putting the company on the defensive is not the best way to start!

  • y_p_w

    I’m from the San Francisco Bay Area.  There are several highly regarded hotels that some might consider “old”, such as the Claremont in Berkeley, the Fairmont, the Mark Hopkins, the Stanford Court, or the Westin St Francis in San Francisco.  These are considered top of the line hotels by almost anyone’s standards, but they are old with some of the buildings older than any of the guests.

    These are hotels that are well maintained, maintain a high level of service, and provide a great stay.  Some parts of the hotel may not be that modern, but I thought that some people like the idea of staying at a historic hotel.

  • y_p_w

    I’ve definitely learned that in order to accept a lower price, one has to temper expectations.  It’s not necessarily settling for less, but realizing that there are tradeoffs in life. With the opaque sites, you’re giving up a certain level of control for a better deal. I like being pleasantly surprised, but I also don’t wallow in pity when I can’t game a system that’s meant to make another company money.

    That being said, I have heard that some hotel staff are aware of how a guest booked and sometimes treat third-party booking guests poorly.  I’m not necessarily talking about placing Priceline/Hotwire guests in certain rooms, but acting rudely or failing to provide the same basic service that a regular guest would receive.  There is no excuse for treating people differently based on how much they paid.

  • sofar

    I’m from Milwaukee, and I actually had out-of-town guests stay at the Ambassador. It’s a nice hotel — they did an absolutely beautiful job on the renovations. I’d say it’s fair, based on the quality of the building, itself to *maybe* call it 4 stars. Probably 3.5.

    I agree with this guy’s complaints about the area — it’s a two-mile hike to get anywhere good downtown. If he doesn’t have a car, he’s screwed because Milwaukee doesn’t do taxis or any kind of public transit. I myself wouldn’t call the area “downtown.”

    But, as you mentioned, Hotwire defines it as such, so it’s something the LW should have looked into before booking. And I agree that, just because it’s in a bad area, it’s not a dump. I also lived in St. Louis, and one of their finest hotels is in one of the most unsafe areas.

  • The OP may have a legitimate complaint in that some of the properties aren’t truly representative of a 4-star or 3-star hotel (especially that Best Western).

    But starting the email saying “I’m never using you again” isn’t likely to motivate Hotwire to do anything.  And I’m mystified as to why if he didn’t like the experience the first time around, he’d book through Hotwire again?  That makes no sense.

    So no, don’t moderate.  I think in this case experience is the best teacher.

  • Ann Lamoy

    And it also appears they offer a free shuttle to many of the downtown attractions so that negates that part of the complaint as well.

  • Joe Farrell

    look, if you want to stay in a hotel, or NOT stay in a particular hotel, why on God’s Green Earth would you use an opaque booking site?  How many levels of stupid is that?

    All you need to is call the hotel you want to stay at up, tell them how many nights and what your budget is and that you really want to stay at their property – can they do anything for you.  The worst they can do is say no or counter offer – and then you move on to hotel #2.

    If you don’t really care where you stay and understand that Hotwire and Priceline are opaque sites where you will not be happy most likely – since few people end up really happy – and you are only PRICE driven – then you get what you pay for. 

  • What is it with people who use these “blind booking” sites and then whine about what they get? Just askin’.

  • y_p_w

    Well – I guess being that far out from downtown was like this scene from the show Night Court:

    Bull: Is it really that bad over there [Soviet Union]?
    Yakov: You ever been to Milwaukee?
    Bull: Yeah.
    Yakov: Close your eyes.
    Bull: Why?
    Yakov: Please? [Bull closes his eyes]
    Yakov: When you open your eyes, you’re going to be in the middle of Milwaukee. No matter where you go, no matter how far you run, you’re still going to be in the middle of Milwaukee. You can get in a cab, and drive two hundred miles in any direction, and you’re still going to be in the middle of Milwaukee. You can get in an airplane, and fly two thousand miles, and you’re still…
    Bull: NO! STOP, STOP IT!

  • y_p_w

    I suppose one of the big complaints is about “truth in advertising” regarding the location of a hotel.

    Again, I am familiar with the San Francisco Bay Area.  The so-called Hilton San Francisco Financial District was formerly the Holiday Inn San Francisco Chinatown.  It’s about a good two to three blocks from anything that resembles San Francisco’s Financial District.  By any standards, it’s in Chinatown.  It has a pedestrian bridge going over Kearney Street linking it with the Portsmouth Square Plaza park, where older Cantonese men are seen playing Chinese Chess and assorted domino games.

    It’s not a bad hotel.  It was still considered a pretty nice place when it was the Holiday Inn Chinatown.  However, the old Holiday Inn had Chinese restaurants and businesses selling Chinese-style goods.  The Hilton has been scrubbed clean of those old acoutrements.  I know why they did it.  They wanted to appeal to the business traveler.  The Holiday Inn did get its fair share of business travelers, but the “Chinatown” name could have been a turnoff to some people who might think it must be a tourist hotel.

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