What to do when you fall for a fake star

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 property until you’ve paid for a non-refundable reservation by credit card. She ended up at a Clarion Hotel property in Pennsylvania she didn’t expect — or 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.

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“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.

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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.

Are star ratings used by "opaque" travel sites misleading?

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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.

  • sirwired

    If you book a hotel this way, you take your chances. Certainly Hotwire disagreeing with other sites by half a star is not even a reason for a telephone call, much less a refund.

    Certainly if a run-down Motel 6 is being sold as “five star” there would be something to discuss, but not a minor discrepancy about something that is almost entirely subjective anyway.

  • jpp42

    Agreed, though I think one thing consumer advocates can/should do is advocate for a star system that is adjudicated by a third party. For example here in Australia the AAA (Australian Automobile Association, similar to the AAA of similar name in the US), has a star system based on defined criteria.
    These are generally amenity based (e.g. a 3.5-star hotel must have a fridge and tea-and-coffee facilities) rather than attempting to say whether a hotel is “good” or “bad” but it serves the purpose well. Some hotels don’t pay AAA for the certification but “self-rate” (which is clearly visible even on opaque sites). So there’s some leeway with the self-rated ones, but generally they follow roughly the same criteria as AAA, otherwise they’d get a backlash.

  • I feel I should just cut and paste my comment from the last opaque site column. When will people learn?

    That said, it’s interesting that on Hotwire’s own site, they list Clarion hotels as an example of “hotels in the casual comfort 2.5-star rating category” but then add the disclaimer that “some brands feature hotels in more than one star rating category”.

    Personally, I think that if a property is within one-half star of the “averaged” rating, that’s probably the best you can hope for. While they may try to stick you in an undesirable room, everyone is entitled to a clean room without bugs. For that, she may try to get some type of voucher from Clarion, but appealing to Hotwire is a dead end.

  • $16635417

    I think the question does not need to single out opaque sites. Star ratings in general are misleading. I’ve stayed at very clean and well run one star establishments. (Basically a motel with a room and no extra amenities such as pools, breakfast etc.) I’ve also stayed at three and four star properties that can’t get their act together.

    In this case, other non-opaque sites rate the property in question as three star as well.

  • TonyA_says

    If you know that opaque sites add a fake star (aka star inflation), then why not bid for properties with one star higher than you originally want? That way you might end up with the correct star rated hotel.

  • Raven_Altosk

    No sympathy.
    Dumb enough to use an opaque site, dumb enough to stay in a crappy Clarion.

  • BillCCC

    I voted no. I am sure that at the moment the booking is made that specific hotel met the criteria for that site. Whether or not someone else agrees is not the problem of the third party site. If the most important aspect of your hotel stay is cost then you will get what you paid for on one of these sites.

  • Alan Gore

    This is less a dispute over half a star than another illustration of an unfortunate fact about hotels. Every hotel has one or two Bad Rooms – next to the elevator machinery perhaps, or without a window, or over the bar. Such rooms are used only when the property is totally full during a snowstorm.

    Now that God has invented the opaque third-party booking site, hotels have a chance to unload these rooms.

  • Veronica

    Stop booking at opaque sites – period.

  • Adam1222

    Nothing “misleading” here. Lau either doesn’t understand or doesn’t care about the business model of Hotwire, and thinks she is entitled to play by different rules than everyone else. Go with Hotwire, you may get a hotel you don’t like. If she was so concerned about having a large room (plenty of hotel guests have stayed 2 people to a double bed), she could have checked a site like biddingfortravel or betterbidding, or just paid a non-opaque rate. Diva.

  • john4868

    Ah… the monthly “I booked on an opaque site and didn’t get exactly what I wanted” article. When will people learn that choosing to use these sites means that you give up hotel choice and you’re going to get the worst room in the place. Is that really worth the few dollars you save?

  • TonyA_says

    God can always take back what he has given :-)

  • SoBeSparky

    The poll question is analogous to the claims, “new, improved, better tasting.”

    Is the product new and improved, much less better tasting? As much as a three-star hotel really ranks as a three-star property, whatever that standard is.

    Sort of like, “better tasting than what?” Three stars on whose scale?

  • NakinaAce

    This is so transparent since Expedia owns Hotwire and they rank it 2.5 stars. How can they then rank it 3 stars on their other site? Someone, you Elliott should point out that only four companies own most of these sites.

  • Miami510

    BUYING A PIG IN A POKE is the archaic saying that came to my mind when I rad this story. The expression dates from the times when confidence men tried to sell a pig for eating in a poke (Old English for a sack) but the buyer wasn’t shown what was inside. Often, a puppy was placed in the sack… and that wasn’t considered good eating, but once the blind purchase was made, the buyer had to accept it because that was the condition under which the sale was made.
    What a perfect parallel to booking a hotel but not knowing what you’re getting. The writer complaining about what she got…. ha…. she got the dog not the pig.

  • Helio

    I’m really curious to know how much she paid for this room…

  • Carrie Charney

    I can’t take your poll because I have not had any experience with an opaque site…and I never will. One of my children has used them successfully on several occasions and has not been “bitten” yet.

  • m11_9

    If you have used these services, you’re used to the treatment. Just never overpay and keep a good spirit about it. At 50-60% off I’ll give a half-star confidence level.

    A little fudging with 1/2 stars is probably to be expected, but the bugs are a local issue, too many moving parts to this story, not a clear debate.

    I vote maybe, as a regular priceline user. I recommend 3 and up only ;you’ll always get more than your money’s worth (but you must use zone strategies that open up multiple bidding scenarios, read all about it before jumping in one of these sites)

  • TonyA_says

    Please explain what you mean by “use zone strategies that open up multiple bidding scenarios”. Sounds like one needs a PHD to use one of these opaque sites “successfully”.

  • backprop

    Is that not also where “letting the cat out of the bag” came from? :)

  • mark

    I use Priceline for 90% of my hotel stays and have yet to have a bad stay. I use betterbidding.com and biddingfortravel.com and figure out what the hotels offered are then i use the history to place my bid. I stick with 4 star when offered and it usually comes down to just a few hotels.

  • TonyA_says

    Me, too. Clarion in Pennsylvania is too broad to pin down but most are probably properties along the highways.

  • MarkKelling

    If you want a specific type of hotel in a specific location with specific amenities, then this is not how to book it. You go directly to the web site of the hotel you want and book it there, or you call them if you want to negotiate the price.

    Opaque sites are OK if all you want is a cheap room for the night. If you want or need anything else, this is not how you get it. Sure there have been anecdotal stories about getting the dream hotel going this route in the past, but those days are gone. Now it seems you are more likely to get a nightmare of a room.

    This is just another case of someone hoping to pay next to nothing for a room and then getting something they didn’t like. Tough.

  • TonyA_says

    For a Clarion ???

  • IGoEverywhere

    The opaque sites are there for the adventurous. They don’t care where they stay and they don’t care where the hotel is until it is too late. Just give me the price. Research first, book later. I believe you to be incorrect when you stated that there is no proper rating services. We use Star Index and it does a super fine job of rating hotels. My hotel service in Galileo seems to rate in a 95% level and our tour companies for independent hotels does just fine. There is also AAA, but you need to be a member in order to access their books. Cheap people get cheap hotels and the worse of rooms. Learn to live with that fact….opaque is exactly what the site wishes to sell you then book you. Everybody is looking for a deal, and travel agents tend to find those deals. But travel agents can generally get deals and now you are talking to a real live person.

  • m11_9

    You are basically making additional bids for a 4 star hotel in zones where there are none, but the goal is the 4 star in your original zone.

    Let’s say downtown Chicago 4-star bid. Aggressively bid $75, knowing its $40 extra to park a car, etc. etc.

    You don’t get it, and you were encouraged by priceline to bring your best offer the first time. So you are out of luck, can’t bid again for 24 hrs, right?

    You can then add zones which do not contain 4 star properties, and slowly increase your bids. These lists and strategies are on the bidding sites, biddingfortravel, and betterbidding. There are tons of zones in major cities, not so many in minor ones.

    There is the risk of getting a remote suburban hotel if that suburb does contains 4 star properties, but they usually don’t, except the airport zones in the Chicago example.

    Can work with lower star levels, but best for 4’s as the dividing line is usually crisper between downtown and suburbs.

    Don’t do this until you have thought it through. It is weird, but it works.

  • Frank Windows

    There’s a simple way to avoid this problem: If you’re sensitive about stuff like this, don’t use Hotwire!! It amazes me that people don’t get the simple concept of “You pays your money and you takes your chances.”

    To Hotwire’s credit, they now show the approval ratings from people who have stayed there (ie “89% positive reviews”). That’s helped us avoid lemons.

    Here’s my strategy: I use Hotwire to get an idea of area rates, then check the web sites for hotels in the area. Takes longer, but I can usually get a room at a hotel I like for only a few bucks more, esp. with Hotwire’s fees ($5-10 per night) factored in. I also get *great* rates staying at small independent places; the clean ones will let you check out the rooms before you pay. TripAdvisor is a great resource for finding the indies.

  • emanon256

    This has been a problem since the birth of the opaque travel site. I fell victim to it 7 years ago when I stayed at a 4 star Days Inn, and have never used an opaque site since.

    I only trust star ratings when they come form Mobil and in my experience, a hotwire/expedia/preceline etc. 3 Star is property is probably not even Mobil rated.

    I think all of these on-line booking sites grossly inflate their stars, and then flaunt how you can get a 4 star hotel for $59 a night on their commercials. I think they assume most people simply don’t know the difference, but is hard for me to believe they classify a Waldorf Astoria in the same category as a Days Inn, yet that’s what they do.

  • emanon256

    Great Point! One time I stayed at a Mobil 4 star rated hotel and the experience was pretty bad, while I have also stayed at a Travel Lodge that had some of the best customer service, and a decent clean room. Not nearly as elaborate as Mobil 4 star, but was actually a better experience.

  • emanon256

    I tried that, got a 4 star Days Inn. Last time I used an opaque site. When I complained, they said it was 4 stars based on user reviews.

  • jebaker

    Any time a customer goes through a litany of problems, you have to wonder how much is sour grapes that they did not get what they wanted. If you are picky about rooms (and I am) use trip advisor and choose your own hotel.

  • Margery Wilson

    Several years ago a similar thing happened to me on Priceline, and I have been a staunch, outspoken boycotter of Priceline and other opaque sites ever since. I bid on a 3 star hotel and did not get it, but the site prompted me with a different hotel. I did not do my homework, so I have to take the blame; I trusted Priceline was giving me an option in line with my stated requirements. WRONG! I paid for a fleabag hotel (literally) that was listed 3 stars but, by reviews on TripAdvisor and others, barely rated 1.5 (and stars don’t measure quality, BTW).

    When I tried to rectify it Priceline gave me the one-finger salute and quoted their policy of not allowing refunds (even though it was more than two months in advance of my stay). Painful lesson learned. I ended up reserving a different hotel, thus paying double the price for my hotel costs that trip (since Priceline kept the cost of my original booking).

    That Priceline offers no recourse is the reason I boycott. There was no good reason for their customer service to be a brick wall, or for them to never offer refunds (as I said, it was waaaay in advance when I made the reservation.) I had gotten excellent deals using their site previously; but one bad experience is all it takes to sour me forever.

    Not only did I feel cheated, but that Priceline had such a scuzzy hotel in their database taught me a valuable lesson. Stars reflect the level of amenities, not the quality, and there is no universal standard for stars. Beware.

  • Several folks asked about the name of the property. It is the Clarion Strasburg. She paid $73 a night, not including taxes.

  • Joe_D_Messina

    And that ends the discussion right there. How much hotel could any reasonable person expect for $73 per night? And she goes into a “panic” because it’s half a star less than she thought? Here’s a crazy idea: If you want total control over what hotel you stay at, actually pick out what hotel you’ll be staying at!

  • LeeAnneClark

    Unlike most times when I comment here, I’m not even going to bother reading all of the other comments before I post mine because I’m sure they are all saying pretty much the same thing:

    NEVER NEVER NEVER use an opaque site to book less than a 5-star hotel! With a 5-star hotel you can be relatively confident that the hotel will at least be livable, even if it’s not quite what you were hoping, or really worth what you paid. But at least you generally won’t get stuck in a flea-bag pit in a ghetto war zone.

    People who use opaque sites need to remember that they are gambling. Don’t want to lose your quarter? For pete’s sake, don’t drop it in the slot machine!

    Is there a place for opaque sites in the travel marketplace? Yes…for gamblers who are 1) willing to do the research so they have at least a good idea of what they might get, and 2) willing to accept the consequences without whining if the gamble doesn’t pay off. ALWAYS use a site such as biddingfortravel.com to find out what other people have been getting at your chosen star level in your chosen area, then hope you get the best of those. Or don’t play the game.

    I’ve gotten awesome rooms at Trump Tower and the Palazzo in Vegas for less than half the going rate…but I might just as well have gotten a lesser hotel worth only what I was paying. I took the gamble…and won. But I also once got stuck in a run-of-the-mill hotel in Seattle rather than the gem I was hoping for. Did I go whining to Christopher? Nope. That’s the gamble.

  • Joe_D_Messina

    Ironically, this place is fairly well reviewed on Trip Advisor. TA has it as the #2 rated hotel in Strasburg and for the price it’s probably a good value. Other than the OP, I don’t know many people who would expect the Ritz for $73 per night.

  • emanon256

    Actual the true Mobil star rating reflects the quality as well as the amenities. (And I believe Forbes bought the Mobil rights, but am not sure of all of the details). This is why I only go by the Mobil golden standard now, not these travel vending sites. After I ended up at a 4 star Days Inn, and was expecting 4 stars to be universal, I threw in the towel on trusting these sites.

    Here are the requirements to be a Mobil 4-star hotel:

    Four-Star Lodgings
    Four-Star Lodging Establishment indicates an outstanding hotel providing the guest with a luxury experience in a distinctive setting, including expanded amenities and exceptional service. Guests at a Four-Star Hotel, Resort or Inn can expect to find all of the qualities for a Three-Star Hotel, Resort or Inn plus the following characteristics:

    Services Detail
    • Written confirmation is automatic or offered, either by mail, fax or e-mail.
    • Guests name is used effectively, but discreetly, as a signal of recognition.
    • The time from arriving at the reception area until registration is complete does not exceed five minutes (includes queuing).
    • Bed is plush and inviting with oversized or numerous pillows.
    • Bedcovers are elegant and stylish and with linens of exceptional quality and comfort.
    • All written information is provided on good quality paper or pads, custom-printed or logoed.
    • Bathroom presentation and placement of amenities and linens is thoughtful, careful, and elegant.
    • Fresh ice is provided during evening service or at another time during the day.
    • Turndown service is automatically provided.
    • During turndown service, guest clothing is neatly handled and guest toiletries are neatly arranged and displayed on a cloth or shelf.
    • Room service is delivered within 30 minutes.
    • Room service order is delivered within five minutes of quoted time.
    • One hour pressing is available.
    • If resort, two hour pressing available
    • Same day laundry and dry cleaning is available seven days/week.
    • Wake-up call is personalized with guest’s name and time of day.
    • Wake-up call is delivered within two minutes of requested time.
    • Special service desk identified as concierge/guest service is situated apart from reception/front desk.
    • If Inn, Workstation where guest can access Internet (may be “borrowed” office) is available.
    • If spa services are present, treatments are begun and ended on schedule, within five minutes of expected or booked time.
    • If spa services are present, during treatment, therapist appears to be genuinely expert, moving seamlessly through the treatment as described and expected.
    • If casino services are present, when playing slots for more than 20 minutes, drink service is offered.
    • If casino services are present, when playing a table game for more than 15 minutes, drink service is offered.

    Facilities Detail
    • Lobby areas feature elegant live plants and/or fresh floral displays.
    • A dedicated and secure luggage storage area is available.
    • Public phones are equipped with seats, privacy panels and pad/pens.
    • Public washrooms are furnished with upgraded materials and appointments/luxurious design.
    • Televisions feature premium cable TV (two movie channels, two all-news, two financial).
    • Guest room telephones have two lines.

    Guest Room Detail
    • Selection of at least 10 hangers including a variety of bars, clips and padded.
    • In-room safe is present.
    • If Inn, in-room safe is present or readily accessible on-site.
    • If minibar is present, it is non auto-charge, and premium products are attractively displayed.
    • Bed is triple sheeted or features washable duvets.
    • Live plants are present in guest rooms.
    • Shaving/makeup, lighted magnifying mirror is present.

    Specialized Facility Detail
    • Fitness equipment is available with personal headphones/televisions.
    • Current newspapers and national-title magazines are provided in fitness and locker areas.
    • If spa, treatment rooms are equipped with individually controlled temperature and sound systems.

  • DavidYoung2

    I really an not convinced you can’t win with a credit card challenge. Look, if I buy an iPhone 5 and they send me an iPhone 3, it’s not what I bought. Sure, it’s still a phone, but not the phone I bought.

    Likewise, if I buy a ‘3-star’ hotel room and they deliver a ‘2.5-star’ hotel room, it’s not the same. It’s not the product I purchased. I think that with enough credit card challenges, or even small claims, we’ll see either an end to star inflation or some reasonable guidelines on what must be included for each star rating.

  • Flip44

    I booked a hotel in London from photos of their bldg in an elegant section, plus,nice interior shots.

    First thing NEVER DO, they insisted I pay in advance (I did with credit card). They put me in a basenent room next to thier laundry room. Cot type bed, one hanging bare bulb, shower upstairs that flooded and i was ankle deep in dirty water. (I should have inspected the room first. I guess I was mesmerized by the drop-dead gorgeous clerk.)

    I left the next day to a hotel a block away and less then half the price. (On subsquent visits to London I stay there.) Conveniet restaurants and markets on that block: a plus.)

    After every threat I could conjure up, letters to the official tourist bureaus, it took me a year to be reimbursed.

  • $16635417

    Hotwire’s non-opaque side shows the Clarion in Strasbourg PA as a three star property. Again, this seems to be less about opaque bookings but rather inconsistency among ratings systems.

  • $16635417

    Looking at Hotwire’s non-opaque side, this hotel is rated as a three star. So Hotwire is consistent on this particular hotel. Less about opaque vs. non-opaque but more about hotel rating systems in general in my opinion.

  • TonyA_says

    What can you get for 73 bucks? About 3 shoofly pies from that area :-)
    Do you think the OP is expecting a bit too much?

  • Brian

    “Hotels routinely assign the worst rooms to guests who book through opaque sites”. And where did this whopper come from Chris? I assume you have concrete – and broad – evidence to back up such a sweeping statement. Otherwise, a retraction is in order.

    Bottom line, it’s not true, and it doesn’t even pass the common sense test. Hotels are in business to drive repeat business. An opaque customer is a perfect candidate to be “won over” so they book that chain, or that hotel the next time. Is the front desk or revenue manager going to do that by punishing the customer?

  • Dutchess

    Then you’re stuck paying higher prices for a lower quality hotel.

  • Dutchess

    Actually, I’ve read about this many many times AND I’ve heard people that work front desk say they assign the worst rooms to those who brought the least revenue. They want to drive repeat business but they will also favor those customers who are part of their loyalty programs and book directly with the hotel.

  • TonyA_says

    I have anecdotal “evidence”. I hired someone who use to work for an OTA’s hotel call center. When I asked her why she quit, she said she was sick and tired of getting calls from irate customers while they were checking in. Most were screaming profanities at her because they did not the get the room (category) they bid or paid for. So I assume most opaque sites UNDER-DELIVER and OVER-HYPE to gullible folks.

  • Sorry, I’ve spoken with too many hotel insiders and guests to be able to take that one back. I remember one hotel rep told me they had the name for a particularly undesirable room next to an elevator – they called it the “Priceline room.”

    Bottom line: Hotels know that opaque guests only care about price and will not repeat unless the price is right.

  • Stephen0118

    I’ll have to agree with Chris. I made the mistake of booking a room at the Aria in Las Vegas through Travelocity (not an opaque site, but I think hotels look at it the same way). I’ve stayed there in the past with no issues. This time I had a problem with the bathroom lights not working. I called maintenance three times and they never came up. I’ll never stay there again. It’s too bad because I gave it a glowing write-up on Consumer Traveler when they first opened.

  • Poley King

    Priceline always seem to be more accurate with its star ratings

  • y_p_w

    I remember booking a room in a reasonably new hotel that was accurately listed as a three star on Priceline. It came with a free breakfast and decent coffee. The beds were nice, the amenities were plentiful, and I had a restful night’s sleep. When I asked for a crib for my kid, I got it easily. The location was a little bit odd though. It was in a development that was only partially completed (probably stopped when the bubble hit), with a road that looked like it was supposed to go a few hundred feet further. The overall area itself was fine – near several upscale shopping complexes.

    Booked it on Priceline for $40. In the morning while we had breakfast, I overheard people trying to extend their stays. The standard rate was $99 and someone extended with a corporate rate for $83. I didn’t say anything about how much I was paying.

  • TonyA_says

    Where is this 4-star Days Inn ???
    I understand that some sites are letting user reviews determine the stars, is that correct?

  • TonyA_says

    Thank you for your great explanation. Still too complex for a simple person like me to score a hotel room this way. I went to the 2 websites that teaches one to bid better and looked at how they rate our hotels in Stamford, CT (where I live). I am confused how they come up with the star ratings. They lump together some decent and quite a number of dumpy hotels in the 3* rating. So if I bid on 3*, I can get royally screwed.

  • LeeAnneClark

    You’re wrong. Christopher’s right. And the evidence is not just anecdotal, either. Hotels have openly stated that they do this.

    And you can’t ignore the anecdotal evidence either – which is overwhelming. Go to any travel message board and ask how many users of opaque sites have gotten stuck in the worst room in the hotel.

    I once got a room at a spectacular 5* hotel in Rome through Priceline. Less than half the cheapest price I could find anywhere for a night in that hotel. The room I got was down at the end of the longest hall, probably half the size of the other rooms in the hotel, barely enough room for the bed, nightstand and a small chair. But I took it because, even at that size, it was was well worth the price I was paying to stay at that luxurious property. But I was well aware that it was likely I’d get a sub-standard room…and it was still worth it to me.

  • $16635417

    I’ve been told by some hotels that I am in a Priceline Room. Usually it tended to be the furthest away from the lobby. (Not necessarily a BAD thing!) If I got a room next to the elevator in the past, I cannot recall any issue with it being too loud.

    I usually end up with a regular room on a middle floor midway down the hall from the elevators. Most of the time I am asked at check-in if a King bed is OK, since I usually am solo on an opaque stay.

    I’ve spoken to SOME front desk people and essentially been told that if the hotel is not that busy and they can afford to give away the room cheaply on PL, they shouldn’t NEED to risk alienating a potential future customer by giving them a less desirable room.

    I have actually repeated to properties I stayed at opaquely, booking the published rates, but usually under certain conditions. (Need a certain bed type, may need to cancel last minute…etc.)

    I have a booking this weekend using an opaque site. I know the hotel is not going to be busy. I called them first to try and negotiate the published price, no luck. I got it for half price on an opaque site. (Yes, I had a good idea of the hotel I would end up with before booking it thanks to the sites mentioned in other comments)

  • LeeAnneClark

    Yes, you can…and that’s the gamble. If you’re not willing to take the gamble, then it’s best not to use opaque sites.

    I also agree that the whole bidding strategy thing is complicated, and can be a real pain. I rarely use opaque sites, but have done it when I needed to keep my budget down but didn’t want to stay in a lesser hotel. I did my homework, learned how to use zone and re-bidding strategies, figured out which hotels I was likely to get, and took my chances. In almost every case I got the hotel I wanted for an incredible price. But it’s a lot of work and, honestly, a real pain the arse.

    These days I’m more inclined to just pay the full price to get the hotel I want. But if I find myself needing to limit my budget for a trip again, I would use Priceline again…provided my research showed that I had a good shot at getting a good deal at a hotel I want. And if my gamble didn’t pay off, I wouldn’t go crying to Christopher!

  • Charles B

    It’s a provable fact you got an iphone 3 not an iphone 5. Star ratings are opinions, not facts.

  • emanon256

    It was the Days Inn in Niagara Falls. One of the dirtiest most disgusting hotels I have ever been in, and it was rated as 4-stars. When I complained I was told the star rating is solely based on user reviews. I actually went across the river and stayed in the Sheraton instead.

  • y_p_w

    I think part of it is that employees are human and don’t particularly like it if a guest who has paid rock bottoms acts demanding. Even if I booked a room on Priceline (never used Hotwire) I try my best to be polite and if I have a special request don’t act as if it’s a demand.

    I don’t know what it is. Some people who book on opaque sites are glad to get a good rate, while others seem go high maintenance and act as if they’ve booked the most expensive suite in the place.

  • y_p_w

    You can actualy get some pretty good advanced purchase rates on Priceline where you know where you’ll be staying. OTOH – some of the hotels also have these advanced purchase rates on their own websites.

  • y_p_w

    You don’t always get **THE** hotel you want, but it’s not bad if it’s close to your first choice.

    I once booked a place on Priceline. I was resigned to the idea that it might not be my first choice, which was closer to my destination and with slightly better amenities (esp free breakfast and coffee). The rate of my preferred location was more with non-opaque booking than the place I thought was most likely. When I found out what I had landed, I was pleasantly surprised.

  • emanon256

    Back when I used to use the sites, I always seemed to get very bad rooms. When I asked for a better room at one hotel, I was told, “Not at the price you paid.” This was in response to a room that was half under construction and had no TV. I used to use these sites simply to save money, and finally decided its not worth it.

    As I tend to have long term stays for work now, I have befriended several hotel managers, and they have all told me that there are a few bad rooms, and when they are going to be close to full, the price line, hotwire, and expedia deep discount people go to those rooms so they won’t alienate their paying customers. They also aid these are the first customers to get walked.

  • $16635417

    100% agree. I usually am friendly and treat the person at the front desk as a human being. I have rarely, if ever, asked for anything special and have even joked about getting the worst room in the hotel.

    Since I’m not demanding, and friendlier, maybe I’m more likely to be treated better and actually get more than the person who books cheap, makes demands and then gets stuck with the minimum.

  • tom65xke

    These sites aren’t worth the savings. Stick with one or two chains and earn enough points to have them value your business.

  • JenniferFinger

    I was wondering when we’d hear from you on this!

  • JenniferFinger

    Buying from opaque sites is a gamble….and it’s inadvisable for those who aren’t able to accept losing.

  • JenniferFinger

    The key word being “might.” You also might end up with another wrong star rated hotel that could be even worse.

  • y_p_w

    I guess it’s a crapshoot.

    Personally I have a stay coming up where I booked (no opaque) on Priceline. At the time I booked, it said parking was a freebie and I called the hotel to confirm. They had my reservation but said parking would be extra. I just printed another copy of the PL reservation, and the free parking is no longer mentioned. I do have a copy of the original reservation in PDF format, so I might just have to bring that with me and see how it turns out. I promise not to yell at the PL operator.

    The irony is that I did have the chance to book it for less on the Hotel’s corporate website, but chose this one because it said parking would be free.

  • y_p_w

    I’m wondering if there’s a pecking order depending on how one booked and how much one paid. There is a category of discounted, nonrefundable advance purchase directly from the corporate website. Then there’s those with AARP/AAA discounted rates. I would assume that someone booking discounted rates on PL or Hotwire are higher in the pecking order than the opaque purchases.

    Still – often the lowest prices are when a hotel is likely to have low occupancy and where they’re not overwhelmed with guests making demands and complaining about how long they’re in line. I’ve paid as little as $40 and felt like I was still treated like a human being.

  • Taylor Michie

    I think that the key problem here is that star ratings are fairly subjective, so one has to be careful. I’ve booked 4 and 4.5 star hotels through Hotwire and always had a great experience, ending up in rooms that I could never afford if I paid sticker price.

    I think that Ms. Lau is out of luck if she’s challenging her stay on the basis of star rating. It’s a futile effort, in my opinion, to try and prove Hotwire misrepresented the property by a half-star, because it’s not a tangible thing.

    I still believe that she had a horrible stay, and I think that the case for compensation can be made on the basis of having a horrible stay, but not because Hotwire “misrepresented” the hotel by a half-star.

  • TonyA_says

    Why I never used an opaque site.

    A long time ago (mid ’80s) I met a man selling catalog services. During those days (before the internet) mail order was pretty big. He was definitely the sales type and I wondered why I should buy anything from him. Fast forward to the ’90s when I moved back to Connecticut and settled in Stamford where I heard the same man was Mr. Priceline, himself. He set up the HQ near my home. I was lucky enough to meet the person who thought about this opaque bidding game so I stayed away from the BS.

    Sometimes it is good to know the people you are buying from :-)

  • emanon256

    My advice, if the person selling you the hotel gives it their own star rating, then its not a valid rating. Only trust independent rating groups that have narrowly tailored qualitative and quantitative criteria such as Mobil and AAA. If something has 4 Diamonds, its almost always going to be the same level of quality and service, if something has a Mobil 4 star rating, its always going to be the same level of quality and service. If Expedia / Priceline / Hotwire say its 4 stars, it probably won’t even qualify for 2 stars or 2 diamonds under the actual rating authorities. Please do not mistake these travel vending machine websites star ratings, for actual Mobil stars or AAA Diamonds.

  • jennj99738

    I received the Hyatt Regency Pittsburgh Airport for $50 through Priceline. I could expect a lot for $73 on Hotwire. A 3* hotel may cost more than due to location or airport shuttle or whatever. Unless the consumer spends some time researching Priceline or Hotwire using the tools available and is risk-adverse, she should not use the opaque sites.

    Given the fairly positive reviews from Hotwire and TripAdvisor (3 1/2*), I think the letter writer exhibited a self-fulfilling prophecy. She went in thinking it was going to be bad and, to her, it was. I don’t really know what she expected as TripAdvisor only listed 6 total hotels in Strasburg, PA. Only one of them received a higher user rating than the Clarion.

  • Michael__K

    I agree that bidders should assume a half-star of inflation going in.

    Even if all the hotels are perfectly/objectively rated by neutral parties, basic supply and demand says that the hotels which most aggressively sell inventory through opaque sites are on average going to be among the less desirable hotels in their star category.

    Sometimes you get positive surprises, but never count on it.

  • jim6555

    I did not vote. I have found the star ratings for opaque rooms at Priceline to be accurate and have used that service at least 50 times. The couple of times that I have been a Hotwire customer, there was definitely star inflation. It is not fair to lump the services of both companies into a broad category.

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