For some hotel guests, opaque stars don’t shine as brightly

By | June 9th, 2009

Is something wrong with the star ratings system used by “opaque” sites such as Hotwire and Priceline?

I ask that question for two reasons: First, I’ve been fielding an awful lot of complaints from travelers who claim the star ratings systems are bogus, which is to say a promised four-star property only meets three-star standards, for example. (Look for several of these in upcoming Travel Troubleshooter columns.)

And second, because even though both companies are aware of the gripes, they don’t seem to be moving toward a resolution. At least not in Louise Werner’s case.

Let me hand the mic to her for a second.

I’ve booked hotels with Hotwire many times over the years, and never had a problem – until tonight.

I arrived in Tucumcari, NM, and saw numerous hotels with great prices advertised – Econolodge, Travelodge, etc., for under $40 for two, but thought I could get a nicer place at a great price through Hotwire.

I wound up with the Super 8, advertised as 2 star, at $65. It was so decrepit looking I wouldn’t even go inside!

I called Hotwire and was told I could get a refund as long as I booked a higher rated hotel on their site. This time I wound up with the La Quinta Inn at $102. Way overpriced, but not a bad hotel, except the pool has not yet opened even though it is advertised, and I would not rate it more than 2 or at the most 2.5 stars. Since I love to swim, I was extremely disappointed.

But what took the cake was the fact that Hotwire paid the hotel $71.18 (including tax) for my room while charging me $102. So it cost me more than $30 to book through this site. I am astounded and outraged, and asked for a refund of the difference, to no avail.

There are two separate issues here. Let’s start with the rate difference. Hotwire buys rooms in bulk and resells them at a markup. That’s how it makes money. I’m sure La Quinta would be happy to sell Werner rooms at $71 a night — if she booked a few hundred of them.

The second issue is a little bit more complicated. I’ve been back and forth with both Hotwire and Priceline, the two major “opaque” Web sites (so named because you don’t see the name of the hotel until you’ve already paid for it).

Let me start by saying that no star rating system is perfect. Not even those in Europe, which are highly regarded but way too rigid.

Opaque sites have a homegrown rating system that can change as hotels upgrade — or downgrade — their facilities.

Here’s how Hotwire comes up with its stars and here’s Priceline’s star rating system explained.

But lately, after reading stories like Werner’s and dealing with several dozen rating-related problems with both Hotwire and Priceline, I’m concerned.

To paraphrase Elmer, I think something is vewwy, vewwy wrong here.

Are opaque sites intentionally upping some hotels by half a star to squeeze more money out of their customers? Are hotels intentionally overstating their amenities in order to squeeze more money out of Hotwire and Priceline? Or are people just complaining more?

Look for a whole series of columns in coming weeks on the star problem. A little teaser: Some have happy endings. Others not.

What do you think is going on here?

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