Case dismissed: A suburban spat over a Hotwire hotel room

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By Christopher Elliott

Here’s a relatively common problem with a so-called “opaque” booking site — with a relatively common resolution.

Unfortunately, it’s the wrong resolution, as far as Phillip McKeough is concerned. He recently booked a Hotwire room in Grand Rapids, Mich. Or thought he had.

Hotwire hassles

Hotwire’s system is not like other online travel agencies. You get to select the room category and location, but don’t find out which hotel you’re staying at until after you’ve made the purchase. When McKeough selected his hotel, he was given a room at a property in Walker, Mich., a suburb about seven miles away from Grand Rapids.

“I believe there has been some sort of mistake,” he told me. “The brand of hotel and price are all fine, but I can’t use a room in Walker. I would like a refund or credit to use in the actually city I need to stay in.”

I agreed that Walker wasn’t Grand Rapids, and asked him to send a polite email to Hotwire, asking it to reassign him to a hotel in the city.

McKeough did some more digging, and found another problem.

It turns out the Holiday Inn Express, the property he was staying at, had room rates on its own website that were only $2.36 a night more than the Hotwire rate. Why jump through all the hoops just to save a few bucks? (Hotwire guarantees rates are up to 60 percent off published prices. I guess the operative word is “up to.”)

He called Hotwire to see if he could sort it out. He asked to speak with a supervisor.

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I thought I would have a good argument when I looked on Holiday Inn Express’ website and found that their standard rate was only $2.36 more than my Hotwire price.

The supervisor actually had the gall to tell me I was getting a deal. I was also surprised when she told me that the distance they quoted me was a straight line, rather than driving distance. I really thought I’d get her with the standard “Don’t you want me to be a happy customer?”

I guess not.

It was like talking to a robot. She just kept repeating that the details were in the fine print and there was nothing they could do because of their contract with Holiday Inn Express. I asked “what about your contract with the customer? I just want a hotel in Grand Rapids for a fair price.”

She told me that they never promised me a hotel in Grand Rapids.

Mapping mishaps

I was disappointed by that response, so my advocacy team and I contacted Hotwire on his behalf. Here’s the answer I got. (Related: What to do when things go “awry” with your Hotwire booking.)

The Holiday Inn Express Hotel & Suites- Walker, MI does properly qualify under the area details provided by our site map for the Grand Rapids area. The possible location for a hotel within this selection is marked with a shaded overlay on our map. That specific area covers parts of Grand Rapids, as well as the neighboring towns of Walker and Wyoming.

[Note — I’ve posted that map above.]

Both of these border towns are clearly marked on the standard view of our map. By selecting hotel results within this area, Mr. McKeough was receiving properties that could fall into any of those three towns.

That’s also why the labels for those results are noted as “Grand Rapids Area Hotel”. I’ve attached a mark-up of our map as a reference in case it might be helpful. (To note, area B. is Grand Rapids, C. is Grand Rapids East, and E. is Grand Rapids South – Wyoming).

In terms of the distance range provided for this area, the 0.7 – 5.2 miles is also accurate. My assumption again would be that the customer is using a distance measure based on traveling through streets from the map’s pin to the hotel location. In reality, these distances are provided on our site as a radius from the map pin. So the 5.2 miles represents a straight line from the map pin to the farthest corner of the area that was selected.

There are many factors that contribute to the size and shape of the areas we use for each of our destinations. Those factors can include things like the number of hotels available, the distribution of those hotels, and opaque protection for our suppliers (in return for providing discounted rates). As a general rule, the smaller the city, the larger the geographic area that each selection will cover on the map.

We’ve contacted Mr. McKeough to share the details of how our maps and areas work, as well as how and when to take those details into account if you have specific needs associated with your booking. We’ll also log his user case into our system to help inform future considerations when updating our site.

Separately, a Hotwire representative called McKeough and told him there was “nothing” they could do about the $2 savings. (Here’s our guide to resolving your consumer problem.)

So there you have it. Not only was the hotel in the right place, but Hotwire beat Holiday Inn’s published rate.

While Hotwire may be technically right, I think this is the wrong way to do business. McKeough will never click on Hotwire again, because he feels duped by the site. And for what? Saving $2 so he could stay in the suburbs? Come on.

I guess the real question is: In a case like this, should an “opaque” site bend its rules to make a customer happy — or stick it to ’em?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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