Susan Farkas couldn’t stay in the New York City apartment she’d rented. The air conditioning was on the blink during a summer heatwave, and the toilet stopped working.
She tried to resolve the situation with the owner and Airbnb, the company through which she’d booked the studio unit.
“But there was no action,” Farkas says. “The apartment didn’t meet my minimum standards.”
As the number of hotel and lodging choices multiplies, her problem is becoming more common. Farkas, a retiree who lives in Portland, Ore., paid $991 for a week in Manhattan, about half what it would have cost for a hotel. Yet standards are all over the map for accommodations, and a site such as Airbnb can’t enforce quality like a chain hotel.
Maybe it’s time for standards. Or at least more accurate information about our accommodations.
When it comes to lodging in general, and hotels in particular, there are no true standards in America. For example, a TripAdvisor review may have been written by a real guest or an employee. An AAA diamond rating, particularly at the higher level, is a subjective review. And forget vacation rentals and apartments — there’s no authoritative source for reviews or ratings.
What’s in plentiful supply? Horror stories from people who checked in, then checked out.
Kathy Williams, who works for a university in Tacoma, Wash., rented an apartment in Gulf Shores, Ala., with her two sisters, paying $920 up front. The online ad showed an immaculate residence on a pristine beach.
“When we arrived, the place was a total dump,” she recalls. “There were drunk people walking the balcony, the wooden deck railing was broken, a discarded metal table was next to the dumpster and the pool was behind a high wooden fence and the size of a hot tub.”
The Williams sisters left early, but the owner pocketed their entire $920.
The disappointments are not limited to vacation rentals. When Jill Ferguson checked into a hotel in Buffalo recently, a representative handed her the key to an unmade room.
“The sheets were all rumpled on the bed, hairs were on and in the toilet and in the sink, and the wastepaper baskets were littered with used tissues,” recalls Ferguson, a writer from Seattle.
Ferguson says there’s a traditional Japanese business practice, that when part of an order is wrong, the whole product is returned.
“And that is how I felt about this hotel,” she says. She checked out.
Farkas, the unhappy apartment renter, left her accommodations after two days and paid Priceline $1,187 to stay at an independent hotel in the Wall Street area for the balance of her visit to New York. Airbnb refunded $655, the value of her unused nights, and after I asked about her case, it offered her a coupon for $168.
Sometimes, customers who leave their accommodations can dispute the charges with the owner or with their credit card issuer, if they’re paying by credit card. None of that should be necessary.
Shouldn’t we have an early warning system that alerts hotel and apartment guests when they’re about to book a below-standard property? Seems like just the kind of service an online review site should provide.
Build your own early warning system
• Don’t rely on one source. Booking a hotel based on a single source, even if it’s a well-known and reputable one, is a recipe for trouble. Instead, consider a minimum of three sources, including an offline resource such as a travel agent, before making a booking decision.
• Don’t believe everything you read. Businesses can control unflattering reviews by forcing consumers to sign “non-disparagement” agreements when they check in, which prevent them from leaving critical reviews. Some rental sites require that you have stayed at a property to leave a review, which eliminates the ability of guests who check out early to leave an honest appraisal. Bottom line: The reviews don’t tell the whole picture.
• Don’t hold back. If you check into a hotel or resort that isn’t up to your standards, say something. Remaining silent means others will book the same property, but it also deprives the hotel of a chance to improve. “A true friend criticizes you to help you improve and become a better person,” says Manu Lail, a managing partner at RMG Hospitality, a hospitality management company based in Dallas.