It sounds like something straight out of a nightmare: You’re on a small fishing vessel, adrift in the Pacific. You see a ship in the distance, and you signal for help. But it keeps going.
Nearly a month later, when you’re finally rescued, two of your crewmates are dead. Had that ship responded to your plea for help, they’d still be alive today.
Question: I bought a hotel through Hotwire that I’d really rather not stay at. A few weeks ago, I requested a two-star property in Flint, Mich. Hotwire gave me a nonrefundable, nonchangeable room at a Days Inn property.
A friend of mine in the area told me about how bad that hotel is. They had tried to stay there but had checked out within the hour because it was filthy and the staff was uncooperative. I did some research on reviews of this property and all the reviews I found, except one, rated it very poor for the same reasons.
I contacted Hotwire, but they were of no help and referred me to the Website to contact them by e-mail. I have not asked for a refund, but only to be allowed to upgrade to a higher-rated facility in the area.
Hotwire’s standard response to all my e-mail is that it meets the two-star requirements they have set. I have tried explaining to them that the star rating is not in question, but the fitness of the facilities. Can you help me? — Ed Boston, Woodland Hills, Calif.
Answer: Hotwire is right — and wrong. It had every right to assign a hotel of its choosing, but not to that particular property.
Hotwire’s terms, which you agreed to when you booked your hotel, are clear. You get to choose the city and a “star” rating based on certain amenities, but the site then reserves a nonrefundable room in a hotel of its choosing.
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.”
Is something wrong with the star ratings system used by “opaque” sites such as Hotwire and Priceline?
I ask that question for two reasons: First, I’ve been fielding an awful lot of complaints from travelers who claim the star ratings systems are bogus, which is to say a promised four-star property only meets three-star standards, for example. (Look for several of these in upcoming Travel Troubleshooter columns.)
And second, because even though both companies are aware of the gripes, they don’t seem to be moving toward a resolution. At least not in Louise Werner’s case.
Let me hand the mic to her for a second.
I’ve booked hotels with Hotwire many times over the years, and never had a problem – until tonight.
I arrived in Tucumcari, NM, and saw numerous hotels with great prices advertised – Econolodge, Travelodge, etc., for under $40 for two, but thought I could get a nicer place at a great price through Hotwire.
I wound up with the Super 8, advertised as 2 star, at $65. It was so decrepit looking I wouldn’t even go inside!
I called Hotwire and was told I could get a refund as long as I booked a higher rated hotel on their site. This time I wound up with the La Quinta Inn at $102. Way overpriced, but not a bad hotel, except the pool has not yet opened even though it is advertised, and I would not rate it more than 2 or at the most 2.5 stars. Since I love to swim, I was extremely disappointed.
But what took the cake was the fact that Hotwire paid the hotel $71.18 (including tax) for my room while charging me $102. So it cost me more than $30 to book through this site. I am astounded and outraged, and asked for a refund of the difference, to no avail.
There are two separate issues here. Let’s start with the rate difference. Hotwire buys rooms in bulk and resells them at a markup. That’s how it makes money. I’m sure La Quinta would be happy to sell Werner rooms at $71 a night — if she booked a few hundred of them.
The second issue is a little bit more complicated. I’ve been back and forth with both Hotwire and Priceline, the two major “opaque” Web sites (so named because you don’t see the name of the hotel until you’ve already paid for it).
Let me start by saying that no star rating system is perfect. Not even those in Europe, which are highly regarded but way too rigid.
Opaque sites have a homegrown rating system that can change as hotels upgrade — or downgrade — their facilities.
But lately, after reading stories like Werner’s and dealing with several dozen rating-related problems with both Hotwire and Priceline, I’m concerned.
To paraphrase Elmer, I think something is vewwy, vewwy wrong here.
Are opaque sites intentionally upping some hotels by half a star to squeeze more money out of their customers? Are hotels intentionally overstating their amenities in order to squeeze more money out of Hotwire and Priceline? Or are people just complaining more?
Look for a whole series of columns in coming weeks on the star problem. A little teaser: Some have happy endings. Others not.
What do you think is going on here?
Marilyn Parver never wanted to become a YouTube star. Neither did Iesha Walker.
Their path to social media celebrity didn’t involve uploading an overproduced music video, clips of dancing comedians or laughing babies. They just took their video cameras on vacation.
Parver whipped out her handycam after two passengers began arguing on a recent JetBlue flight and taped the fracas. When flight attendants asked her to erase the footage because they were afraid it might “end up on YouTube,” she refused — and was later escorted from the plane in handcuffs. The clip ended up on YouTube, where more than 30,000 people watched it.
When Walker checked into her cabin on Carnival’s Destiny, she found wires hanging from the lamps above the beds, a soiled toilet seat and toilet bowl, a grimy shower stall, broken tiles and a broken wall panel above the bed. And there were bugs. Lots of bugs. So she pointed her camera lens at the infestation. When Carnival refused to reimburse her for the cruise, she uploaded the video.
This is only the beginning.
Online video is big. Americans watched a record 13.5 billion online videos in October, the last month for which figures are available, according to Comscore. That’s a 45 percent increase from a year ago. Nearly 8 out of 10 Internet users watched an online video, and among younger users, the Internet has already become a TV substitute.
Some of the most effective Internet videos are ones that allow travelers to “voice and record their own perspective, opinion and experience,” says Fionn Downhill, the chief executive of Elixir Interactive, an interactive marketing agency in Scottsdale, Ariz. “Videos documenting authentic, user-generated experiences spread like quick fire because they speak to the concerns and sentiment of the market.”
How do you become part of the video revolution on your next vacation? Here are a few tips.
Pack the right camera.
Today’s video cameras are small, affordable and shoot in high definition. I just field-tested the Flip Mino HD, a $229 camera that’s so inconspicuous, I could — and did — film anyone, anywhere. I gave it to my sons (ages 6 and 4) and they took some good pictures. The footage downloaded directly to my PC and could be posted to the Internet within minutes. I’m especially excited about the convergence of the SLR camera and video camera, such as the Canon 5D Mark II, which allows you to take broadcast-quality video and sharp photos. Once these technologies get a toehold among travelers, the video revolution will really catch fire.
Get to know the competition.
In an age of citizen journalism, your competition could be your seatmate. What sets your video apart from the tens of millions of clips on the Web is a basic understanding of what makes a compelling video. It’s part science (good lighting and composition) and part art (understanding why a billion people want to watch a guy named Matt dancing). The first part is easy. The second part — not so easy. In online-speak, a popular video is called “viral” because it spreads quickly. “Over the years I’ve had more misses than hits with viral videos,” says videoblogger Brandon Mendelson. “The ones that became hits were the ones that I had low expectations for — and the ones I had high expectations for, never reached the success I envisioned.”
Post helpful information.
For years, only production companies with expensive cameras had access to video cameras and the means to broadcast what they shot. Not any more. And guess what? People are interested in the other side of a travel product — the side the airline and hotel don’t necessarily want you to see. Travel blogger Darren Cronian recently uploaded a tour of his hotel room at London’s Shaftesbury Kensington Hotel and was surprised when prospective guests began contacting him. “People are searching for hotel reviews on sites like YouTube,” he told me.
It’s easy to distinguish the corporate video from the homegrown travel production — even if you shoot both on the same camera. The commercial video usually has one purpose, says Tom Flanagan, the chief executive of the Denver-based marketing company Red Robot: to drive sales. “It is obvious that consumers increasingly demand more,” he says. They don’t just want to be pitched. They want to see videos that are interesting, authentic — and brief. Enough said.
Tell a story.
Even though you’re dealing with a new medium, a lot of the old rules apply. A popular online video has to tell some kind of story, even if it’s a simple tour of your hotel room or an argument on a plane. That’s the assessment of writer and producer Tim Street, who specializes in creating and distributing online video. “I’ve had over 30 million views of my videos online and what I’ve learned is that you can’t just make a video and expect it to go viral,” he says. “You need your video to be emotionally engaging moving two or more emotions. You also need spectacle and story.” Incidentally, there’s plenty of that in the travel industry. It’s just waiting to be discovered by you.
Camera-toting tourists have a lot more power than they think. Use yours responsibly. Alexia Nestora, a consultant for a tour operator in Littleton, Colo., remembers how one unhappy customer posted a video that alleged her client was operating a fraudulent business. In the clip, he burned a T-shirt with the company’s logo and scrolled text with falsified information. More than 500 people downloaded his tirade. “We know that we lost a few sales as a result of the video, people would call after they had booked — sometimes even forfeiting their deposit because this video scared them off,” she remembers. Lesson learned? Online videos “can no longer be ignored by marketers and must be monitored,” she says. But the takeaway for us, the folks who are creating these videos, is that the world is watching. Think before you post.
I’m not sure anyone fully understands what video means to travel — let alone the Internet. As Wilson Cleveland, a vice president at CJP, points out, “Video is the best medium for bringing an experience or storyline to life.” It can provoke a visceral response from you. But is that all?
I believe it’s possible that we’re are entering an age in which a single online video has the power to transform an obscure destination into a must-visit Mecca — or to turn throngs of travelers away from an airline, car rental company, cruise line or resort.
Will this make the travel industry offer better customer service? Or will they just try to confiscate our video cameras when we’re on the road?
Better hold on to your cameras.