Can this trip be saved? Cheated by half a star on my New Orleans hotel

Half a star may not sound like much to the average hotel guest, particularly when there are no nationally-recognized hotel rating standards in the United States. But it means the world to Sandi Tanner, who is planning her 20th wedding anniversary in New Orleans.

Hotwire offered her a pre-paid, nonrefundable room at The Inn on Bourbon, which TripAdvisor gives three stars and AAA rates as three-diamond. Even Hotwire gives it a three-star rating at the time of her booking.

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Just one problem: She paid for a 3.5-star room.

Now, before you say, “What’s half a star among friends?” consider what fudging half a star rating can mean to a business. Putting guests in slightly cheaper hotels can translate into millions of dollars of additional revenue per year. It’s like skimming a little off the top. It adds up.

Tanner, though disappointed, at first did what the average hotel guest would do: she went along with it.

“I would take the hotel,” she told me. “But it won’t work with me. The woman I spoke with had a very uncaring attitude even when I explained the situation. On the hotel’s own website they are still offering non-smoking king rooms, but according to her they are out of them. How is this possible?”

A downgraded hotel, forced to stay in a smoking room for her 20th anniversary. There’s got to be a better way, right?

Hotwire has fixed a similar problem in the past, when asked to reconcile a half-star difference. She though the online agency would see things her way, too.

So Tanner sent a brief, concise email to Hotwire, asking it to reconsider its hotel selection. Just as a reminder, Hotwire is a so-called “opaque” site — you choose the star rating, location and price, and it picks the property. All rooms are non-refundable. Tanner suggested they send her to a higher-rated hotel that was offering rooms for less than the one she’d paid — a “win-win” in anyone’s book.

Hotwire didn’t agree.

Some hotel brands, like the Ramada, feature properties in multiple star-rating categories because the rating is not based on the chain’s overall value, but rather on each individual hotel. Not all Ramada properties can fall into the same star-rating category, as each property has its own unique features and services.

This particular Ramada, in this location, was reviewed by our hotel specialists on February 12, 2011, and the 3.5-Star rating was determined to be an accurate reflection of the quality of this establishment.

Room type, including smoking preference and number/size of beds, is assigned by the hotel based on their availability at the time of your check-in, and not guaranteed by Hotwire. Since we carry our hotel partners’ unsold inventory, we cannot guarantee that they will have your specifically desired room type available when you check in.

In other words, a deal’s a deal.

I understand Hotwire’s perspective. It insists the 3 1/2-star rating for the Inn is correct, although the form letter it sent to Tanner doesn’t really address the problem she had. What’s more, it’s policies about room type are disclosed on its own site, although few guests bother to review the fine print before they make a purchase.

Plus, what’s half a star, really? Here’s the difference between a 3 1/2-star and a 3-star hotel on Hotwire. It appears to be relatively minor.

At the same time, I get where Tanner is coming from. She though she would get a room at a Hilton or Embassy Suites, not at a Ramada Inn. Hotwire’s excuse for not meeting her expectations is disappointing; the Inn staff’s attitude isn’t helping.

For a special occasion like an anniversary, when everything has to be just so, I wouldn’t roll the dice on an opaque website. I think Tanner might have done just as well by reserving her room directly with the hotel she wanted or through a travel agent.

Do you think Tanner should live with her decision, enduring a smoking room in a hotel she didn’t want? Or should Hotwire refund her room and make a reservation in a hotel that both parties agree is a 3 1/2-star property?

Should I mediate this case? It was a close vote, but the “nos” have it.

(Photo: Master Ma q/Flickr Creative Commons)

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