What makes you happiest? Your TV — and here’s why

Traj4/Shutterstock
Traj4/Shutterstock
Jessica Beeman paid $779 for her 50-inch TV, a purchase she was pleased with, until one day “it just stopped” working. And then she wasn’t.

“We didn’t do anything to it,” she says. “It won’t turn on. The red power button light blinks over and over.”

At the time, I had no idea how rare her complaint was — and how fleeting. I asked her to send me the documentation on the busted household appliance. But within hours, Beeman reported back.

“They fixed it,” she told me. “All for free.”
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Hey, that’s no four-star hotel!

Question: I recently booked a hotel in Prague through Expedia. While perusing the hotels online, I saw an advertisement for an unpublished rate hotel. I clicked the advertisement and was presented with three four-star hotels from which to choose.
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“The only thing missing is a blindfold and a cigarette”

That’s one of the more memorable quotes from this year’s Zagat airline survey, which picked the best carriers in the historically customer-hostile airline industry.

Here are a few other accolades, as cited by Zagat:

“At least they haven’t killed me yet.”

“My bags get better service, but they pay extra.”

“The only difference between economy and business classes is a shrimp on your salad.”

“Unwelcome aboard!”

Oh, you can’t make this stuff up.

I hesitate to mention the winners, because a reasonable observer might look at this list and see only degrees of losers. But here you go, anyway.
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Is my hotel’s lost star a lost cause?

Question: My fiance and I are going to Melbourne, Australia, to celebrate his six-month, “all clear” from cancer. I booked a four-star hotel on Priceline.com for our first two nights and when they revealed the hotel, it was actually a three-star on the hotel’s own Web site.

I called Priceline’s customer service immediately after booking to protest, but Priceline’s agents passed the buck back and forth for more than 30 minutes before telling me they could do nothing, and I would get an email in three to five business days. Thanks for nothing.

Not only have I not received a response after a week, but when I called again yesterday, they promised a resolution by 8 p.m. yesterday, and still nothing. I am looking for a refund and will never use Priceline again. Thanks so much for any help you can provide. — Stephanie Farrow, Charleston, S.C.

Answer: If the hotel considers itself a three-star, I can’t think of any reason for Priceline to contradict it.

Except, maybe to upgrade its price category and charge you a little more.
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Hotwire’s half-star mistake

airport hiltonQuestion: I’ve used Hotwire.com many times, and have been happy with it. I’m also a former airline employee and seasoned traveler, so I am not ignorant of the travel industry. But I’m having some trouble with Hotwire’s star ratings, and could use a little help from you.

I am driving to Chicago for a convention in a couple of weeks. After confirming the area I wanted to stay in, I checked the star ratings to make a choice in hotels.

The only hotel I did not want to stay in was the Hilton at the airport. Hotwire shows the Hilton rated 3-1/2 stars, so I chose a 4-star option in the area.

Needless to say, the hotel I got was the Hilton O’Hare. Hotwire informed me that it had just changed the rating for that particular hotel to four stars last week and would not change my reservation per their rules. I tried to explain that they still have Hiltons listed as 3-1/2 stars, but to no avail. The hotel Web site lists the AAA hotel rating at three diamonds. The customer service rep said he does make exceptions but would not in this case. What should I do? — Debbie Burk, Eagan, Minn.

Answer: If you asked for a 4-star hotel, then Hotwire shouldn’t have given you a room at the Hilton. The representative you spoke with should have changed your hotel immediately instead of arguing with you about an “exception.”
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Southwest Airlines strikes out in airline food survey; Continental tops the list

nutsAirline food. No, that’s not the punchline to a joke.

Air carriers serve meals, and where there’s food, there can’t be a restaurant critic too far behind. Just in time for the buys travel holiday season, DietDetective.com has released its annual airline food investigation. Continental Airlines topped this year’s rankings, winning accolades for its “free, low-calorie, high-impact meals,” while Southwest Airlines rated the lowest for offering “not much in terms of nutritional value.”
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Does TripAdvisor hotel manipulation scandal render the site completely useless?

How do I boost my TripAdvisor rating?

That’s the most common question I get from hotel executives. And even though I try to persuade them it’s the wrong question — that there’s no proven link between a good review and bookings — they insist that their TripAdvisor reviews are the be-all and end-all.

Now, two of TripAdvisor’s most vocal critics, Beat of Hawaii with an assist from guidebook legend Arthur Frommer, have delivered a devastating blow to the Expedia-owned site.

The sites point to new warning language that accompanies close to 100 TripAdvisor hotel reviews:

TripAdvisor has reasonable cause to believe that either this property or individuals associated with the property may have attempted to manipulate our popularity index by interfering with the unbiased nature of our reviews. Please take this into consideration when researching your travel plans.

Frommer suggests TripAdvisor is basically done.

Why wouldn’t a hotel submit a flurry of positive comments penned by employees or friends? If you were a hotel owner, wouldn’t you take steps to make sure that TripAdvisor contained numerous favorable write-ups of your property? Who would fail to do this? And because of such inescapable logic, doesn’t TripAdvisor contain within itself the germs of its own undoing?

Shortly after the story hit the blogosphere and the twittersphere, TripAdvisor went on the counterattack. April Robb, who staffs TripAdvisor’s Twitter account, posted a reply on Beat of Hawaii.

TripAdvisor has zero tolerance for fraud, and we have many systems in place to address it. Our red badges are just one component and they are not, in fact, new; they’ve been standard procedure for a while now. Properties that are suspect based on specific criteria have a red badge posted next to their listing to alert travelers to our concerns. Whether or not the property advertises on TripAdvisor is irrelevant; content integrity is our utmost concern.

After I tweeted about the TripAdvisor scandal, Robb pointed me to the comment. I asked her if, now that Frommer had added his opinion, she had anything else to say. She did.

We believe our nearly 25 million reviews and opinions are authentic, honest and unbiased, from real travelers, which is why we enjoy tremendous user loyalty. Also, the sheer volume of reviews we have for an individual property allows travelers to base their decisions on the opinions of many.

The integrity of TripAdvisor reviews is protected by three primary methods:

1. Every review is screened prior to posting and a team of quality assurance specialists investigate suspicious reviews

2. Proprietary automated tools help identify attempts to subvert the system

3. Our large and passionate community of more than 25 million monthly visitors help screen our content and report suspicious activity

When a review is suspected to be fraudulent, it is immediately taken down and we have measures to penalize businesses for attempts to game the system. Penalties are handled on a case by case basis.

So should you trust TripAdvisor?

Having covered the site since the very start, I think I’m uniquely qualified to answer that question. And my answer is: maybe.

Hotels and restaurants are gaming the ratings system, without a doubt. What’s significant about the recent TripAdvisor warnings is that they appear to shift their fraud-detection efforts from an unrealistic, proactive approach to a more reasonable, reactive approach. Which is to say, they do their best to catch bogus reviews as they’re posted, but in the end, they can’t stop them all. To TripAdvisor, this may seem like a subtle change, but to the likes of Beat of Hawaii, it’s a huge concession.

It’s an admission that the reviews are imperfect. TripAdvisor features more than just “real advice from real travelers” — it also has fake reviews from real hotels. And fake reviews from their competitors. And fake reviews from restaurants and their competitors.

In other words, it’s messy.

Does this mean TripAdvisor is useless? Hardly.

I use TripAdvisor when I travel, but I do so with the knowledge that the travel industry is successfully manipulating the site. I ignore the best and worst reviews (those are typically the fake ones) and whenever I read phrases like “best hotel ever” or “incomparable service” I roll my eyes and wonder about that fabled algorithm that’s supposed to catch counterfeit reviews.

TripAdvisor, for its part, could stand to tone down some of its rhetoric. Maybe losing the “real advice from real travelers” line would be a good start.

Certainly, its slogan, “Get the truth. Then Go.” needs to be revised. Or dropped.

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