Filthy hotel, no refund

by Christopher Elliott on August 8, 2004

Q: I recently booked four nights at a Spokane, Wash., hotel through Hotwire. When I checked in, I was told that it was the day after Hoopfest, a weekend basketball competition for young adults.

As I walked from the lobby to the elevator, I notice that the carpet was filthy, as was the elevator. It also smelled of alcohol.

I went to my room to find a dirty carpet and a musky smell as well. I left the hotel to meet a friend for dinner and called Hotwire in the meantime. I did not complain to the hotel as the attendant was just a young night clerk and changing rooms would not change the overall dirty nature of the hotel.

Hotwire took my case and I informed them I would not be staying at the hotel. My complaint was the basic lack of cleanliness of the hotel and not the amenities offered. I felt Hotwire had some obligation to guarantee a minimum in cleanliness and this certainly did not meet that standard.

Hotwire said the case would be forwarded to an “investigation team” and I would get some resolution. I did not get any resolution. Hotwire refused a refund. They could not have possibly visited the hotel in person within the short notice of their answer. What can I do to get a refund?

– Larry Sweatt

A: On the one hand, all rooms booked through Hotwire are completely nonrefundable. But you probably knew that already.

On the other hand, Hotwire has an obligation to sell you a clean room that meets certain basic standards. I checked the company’s Web site to see if those standards were spelled out, but I can’t say they were to my satisfaction.

Hotwire maintains a “star” ratings based on recognized industry sources, such as Mobil, AAA, Fodors and Zagat. It supplements the reviews with hotel visits by its representatives and customer feedback. But I couldn’t find any mention about what constitutes a minimally-acceptable room. The star ratings imply those standards, without a question.

If you want to be able to pick the exact hotel you’re staying in, I wouldn’t recommend an opaque service like Hotwire. Remember, you’re getting a deep discount in exchange for a room in a hotel that you can’t specifically name, and for which you can’t collect any loyalty points.

Instead, call a travel agent and pick a hotel that you know is going to meet your criteria. Will that be more expensive? Sure, but it sure beats staying at a place you aren’t comfortable in.

I also wouldn’t have let the hotel off the hook so easily. For every hotel clerk, there’s a supervisor on duty somewhere. Ask for that person and politely explain your concerns. Chances are the hotel was just as unhappy as you were about the state in which its previous guests had left it.

A manager might have been able to move you into a cleaner room or worked with you to resolve your problem.

I think Hotwire could do a better job spelling out how a property gets into its network. Do they just have to offer discounted rooms? Do they have to pass some kind of inspection, or agree to meet certain standards of cleanliness? For all I know, this information may already exist in Hotwire’s merchant agreement. But I couldn’t find it on the site, which is where travelers do their research before they book their rooms.

I contacted Hotwire about your visit, and as far as it’s concerned, your hotel checked out.

“Our market manager reviewed the hotel and deemed it is consistent with its 2-star rating, and did not find it to be unclean,” says Amy Bohutinsky, a Hotwire spokeswoman. “Thus, we were not able to issue a refund.”

However, Hotwire regretted that your stay didn’t meet your expectations, and credited you with $50 toward your next purchase. I think that’s a more than generous resolution, considering that Hotwire’s rooms are nonrefundable.

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