What to do when you fall for a fake star

Fiona Lau contacted me in a panic a few days ago. She’d booked a “three-star” hotel through Hotwire, which doesn’t reveal the name of the property until you’ve paid for a non-refundable reservation by credit card. She ended up at a Clarion Hotel property in Pennsylvania she didn’t expect — or want.

“I looked at the picture from the official Clarion website, and the hotel doesn’t just look old, the family suite picture that they displayed is showing an extremely old room with patches on the wall,” she says.
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Did Princess ship ignore a vessel asking for help?

Oh, never mind. / Photo by cruadin - Flickr
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.
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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 While perusing the hotels online, I saw an advertisement for an unpublished rate hotel.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 Travel Troubleshooter: Star confusion on my Hotwire hotel room

Question: I just booked a hotel room in New Orleans through Hotwire. It seemed like a great deal. The listing was for a 4.5 star hotel. I started looking around their website, trying to determine what the possibilities were and by looking at the “hotel plus car” section I was able to see that there seemed to be three nice choices of 4.5 star hotels in the area the listing was in.
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The Travel Troubleshooter: Four stars for that resort? Says who?

Question: I recently booked a four-star hotel in Playa Del Carmen, Mexico, through Hotwire. Hotwire claims its four-star hotels are prestigious, respected properties. Not only that, but the map of the area looks as if it runs along the coast, virtually ensuring a resort near the beach.

After I made my purchase, I found out I had a room at the Hacienda Vista Real Resort & Spa, which was located far away from the beach. According to, they have at least 85 percent bad reviews. I am traveling with my husband and a baby, and want to avoid taking taxis to get to the beach.

Initially, I tried to tell Hotwire that the hotel was neither prestigious nor well known, and that it wasn’t close to the beach. But now that I’ve read the reviews, I’m even more concerned. Hotwire sent me a form response, saying, “We reviewed the hotel’s location and verified it is within the Playa del Carmen — Playacar, Quintana Roo city area.” What should I do? — Valerie Acosta, Fullerton, Calif.

Answer: Hotwire owed you more than a form letter in response to your request to review your hotel assignment. But before I get to Hotwire’s mistake, let’s talk about your booking choice.

Did you say you booked a resort in Mexico for you and your baby through Hotwire? Seriously?
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A $387 bill for a cracked windshield? You’ve gotta be kidding

Debbie Vinton saw a star on her recent vacation in Los Angeles, but it isn’t the kind that you’d want an autograph from. Instead, her car rental company asked to sign a form agreeing to cover the damage for a cracked windshield “star” on her front windshield.

It’s a decision she now regrets. The bill came to $387, not including a $50 “administrative fee” for a repair that should have cost just $50.

Vinton’s case is a reminder that you ask questions before, not after, signing a release — and always, always check the windshield.
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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 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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Is Hotwire’s new advertising slogan, “2 1/2-star hotels. 3-star prices.”?

Before you dismiss this latest story about a hotel ratings dispute as irrelevant, consider this: Changing a hotel’s star rating by just a fraction can translate into millions of dollars of revenue to an online travel company. So every half-point counts. It certainly does to Sugi Harto, who found himself booked at the Fairfield Inn Placentia through Hotwire recently.

As an “opaque” seller of travel, Hotwire doesn’t reveal the name of the property until you’ve after you’ve bought it. It only lets you see a location and a star rating while you’re shopping. Hotwire generously awarded the Fairfield Inn three stars. Harto found that many other credible sources gave it only 2.5 stars.

Is this a textbook case of star inflation?
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You call that a two-star hotel?

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.
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Hotwire’s half-star mistake

airport hiltonQuestion: I’ve used 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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For some hotel guests, opaque stars don’t shine as brightly

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.

Here’s how Hotwire comes up with its stars and here’s Priceline’s star rating system explained.

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?

Ready for your close-up? How to be a YouTube star on your next vacation

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.

Be yourself.
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.

Be responsible.
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.