“Their bait-and-switch tactics count on us having a short memory”

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By Christopher Elliott

One question remains after trying — and failing — to mediate Gregory Bergman’s case with Hotwire: Why do we keep falling for it?

Why do we continue to book anonymous hotels that may or may not meet our expectations?

I don’t know. But I’d like to hear your theories.

First, Bergman’s story. It’s a familiar one to readers of this site. He used Hotwire to book a room for eight days in early June in Portsmouth, NH. He’s used the site many times before, but this time, he wanted more of a sure thing.

“As I am traveling with my wife and newborn girl from the Bay Area, I wanted the hotel to be above-standard,” he says.

Bergman knows the hotels in Portsmouth pretty well, and figured that by choosing a “3.5 star” property, he’d be in good shape. He believed only two hotels rated about three stars, and he was comfortable staying in both of those with his family.

He figured wrong.

I was dumbfounded to find at the moment of “revelation” we would be staying at the local Best Western.

I immediately called customer service and explained that as a loyal Hotwire customer, I understood the process and usually expect to be pleasantly surprised or mildly disappointed.

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In this case, though, a 3.5 star rating for the Portsmouth Best Western — a 70s decor holdout — was an egregious error.

Bergman asked for a refund. Hotwire refused.

An argument ensued

I noted their own rating on the “names revealed” side rated the Best Western “plus” sister hotel six miles away as a three-star. But he explained they used Orbitz, Travelocity and their own customers for ratings.

When I noted the Orbitz site had one customer complaining of bedbugs, he questioned the legitimacy of the reviewer. I asked to speak to a manager, who listened and then also denied me any refund.

As an experienced Hotwire user, Bergman should have known of the risks of booking through the site. I would have happily explained those to him or referred him to the numerous other articles I’ve written about star confusion.

But in the end I decided to contact Hotwire about his grievance because of his circumstances. Traveling with an infant can be extra stressful, and what’s the harm in asking?

I should have known better.

Here’s Hotwire’s response:

We researched the Best Western Plus Wynwood Portsmouth (and our system) further, and the 3.5-star rating that was given to this hotel is accurate. In fact, we last benchmarked this property on 5/26, so the star rating is indeed up to date.

I recognize that Mr. Bergman is familiar with the area and I’m sorry to hear that he feels this hotel is below a 3.5-star rating. However, it should be noted that this hotel is well rated by TripAdvisor customers at 4-stars, and is recommended by 82% of Hotwire customers who have completed a post-stay survey.

In terms of his input on the other local Best Western hotel having a 3-star rating, it’s worth noting that quality and, in turn, star ratings can vary across specific properties within a hotel chain. So unfortunately, Mr. Bergman might be using information that isn’t entirely reliable in this case.

In other words, he’s stuck with the hotel. Here’s how everything ended: Bergman and his family stayed at the hotel and they hated every minute of it.

“It was a dreadful room, a Motel 6 tunnel-like atmosphere, and we spent eight days running away from it,” he says.

He added,

My complaint, which I believe you share, is the star inflation at travel websites.

That the Wynnwood would rate the same five stars as Pacifica Bonito, or the Copley is foolish, but that travel sites like Hotwire have figured to harness such nonsense reviews is nearly fraud.

The more light shed on the star rating systems being used by the major travel websites, the better. Their bait-and-switch tactics count on us having a short memory — or on the gambler within us.

I’m certainly guilty of returning to Hotwire, despite having multiple lousy experiences renting overrated rooms.

That’s the real question. Why do we keep coming back to Hotwire when we know we won’t get a sure thing? Is it the gambler within all of us? The bargain-hunter? Did our brains go on vacation before the rest of us?

Why, for that matter, do we continue to trust user-generated reviews, which are often manipulated by hotels and restaurants? (Here’s our guide to finding the best hotel at the cheapest rate.)

I’ve been covering this business for a long time, and I still don’t know the answer.

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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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