September 18, 2005

Hotel Nightmare (Why I Won't Use Priceline Again)

While house hunting a week ago, I made hotel reservations using It wasn't the first time I had used them. They have usually given me decent hotels, with little or no hassle involved. Some of the rates have been so great - cheaper than other online services - that it made not knowing for sure WHICH hotel you'll be stuck with almost worth it. They charge your credit card after you "name your price", pick which rating of hotel you wish to stay at, and tell them what area to choose from. You don't get to see a list or pick the name of the hotel. There's a uncomfortable level of trust expected of you... and in the past, I had not been disappointed. I have used Priceline at least ten times before, but last weekend, it would be a vast understatement to say that I was unpleasantly surprised when I showed up to check in.

First of all, Priceline has three ratings:

3 Star Upscale (not always available depending on town/city) - These are listed as the "most recognized hotels in the industry" - high quality, and well decorated... such as: Hilton, Hyatt, Embassy Suites, Holiday Inn, Marriott or Sheraton

2.5 Star Hotels - They list these as "quality name brand hotels" such as: Amerisuites, Doubletree Club, Residence Inn, or Holiday Inn

2 Star Hotels - Listed as name brand hotels "known for their quality" which are "clean" and "comfortable", such as: Holiday Inn, La Quinta Inn, Ramada Inn, Best Western and Comfort Inn

1 Star Hotels - Listed again, as national name brand "quality" hotels... [hmmm? Sounding a bit redundant?] such as: Sleep Inn, Roadway Inn, Econolodge, Red Roof Inn, or Super 8

From this list, it looks as if you can't really go wrong if you avoid the 1-star rating for the most part (and you do a little research as to what side of town to book in). When I have used Priceline in the past, I have always tried to get as high on the tier of stars as I can without forking out over a certain dollar amount. I actually got a 65$ room for only 30$ once, and I know this to be true, because I had previously called the hotel to book direct, and they gave me that flat rate over the phone the same day I reserved it through Priceline. For the record, I chose a TWO-STAR hotel last weekend. I can't even fathom what their One-Star locations must really be like from the likes of the last place!

Something went very awry the night we checked in to what I now affectionately call the "roach-pit". Either someone at Priceline was paid off to rate this particular "motel" as a 2-star property, or maybe the mob was involved. I'm not quite sure, but it sure cost Priceline a repeat customer, and a lot of negative publicity.

When I checked in, I first noticed the flyers that were made from colored copy paper, stapled and taped and pasted to everything with a flat surface... stating that they were a Red Cross facility for Katrina Victims. I am glad that they were being so kind as to offer their rooms, but it seemed that they were doing it not so much for charity, but for the possibility of cashing in on inflated rates from FEMA refunds. It was like a low-dollar advertising campaign with bright yellow Red Cross signs everywhere. You only need one flyer on the door to let people know you'll help!

Next, I noticed how run down the place seemed to be. People were hanging out on the steps out front smoking cigars. There was a broken down vehicle in the parking lot out back that looked like it had been there for years... oil leaking out in a black lake from under it's prehistoric 1970's frame.... tilted to one corner in a tire-less bow. The lady at the cashier's office gave me a key to a room. I quickly discovered after the trip upstairs to see it, that it had only ONE bed [for our four person family]. The elevator buttons had to be pushed a number of times to actually light up. The halls smelled of at least fifteen different international food types being cooked at the same time [or maybe rotten leftovers from fifteen different restaurants awaiting the end of the week for maid-pick-up]. This was one of those stay-by-the-week kitchenette places... and my stomach was assaulted by my nose as I exited the second floor. I was getting the strange feeling that this place was a big mistake. A really big, really bad mistake that Priceline was about to make. So, to spare them the humiliation, I decided to step outside and return to my car to make a quick phone-call and sort the matter out. I flipped open my cell phone to call Priceline (the only phone number listed happened to be a long distance number [another hidden charge]).

I was expecting a nice, helpful person on the other end of the phone. I got someone who spoke broken English. She tried to help, I guess, if you could understand her. I eventually was transferred to another lady, who had an accent, but was much more fluent. I tried to explain to her that I believed that they had categorized our hotel wrong. I explained that it seemed run down, that we were only given one bed [not the standard two double beds at the least that we were used to getting] and that it quite literally stunk. I asked her to move us to another hotel, or refund us so that we could go buy our own hotel room with the three days worth of charges they had already taken from our Visa. She went in circles around me a few times with legal mumbo-jumbo... and since I didn't have my internet connection at my finger tips, so that I could quickly read her the 2-Star qualifications she most certainly had forgotten about... I lost the battle. She said she would get back on the line with me after speaking with a manager and sorting this out.

How did she sort it out? She called the hotel clerk that had just given me the key to my stinky, run-down, one-bed "suite", and told her that I thought her hotel stunk, and I needed two beds. So, now, not only was I NOT going to get my money back, and not only could I NOT change hotels, but I had just vicariously and completely snubbed my nose at the hotel's staff ["Thanks Priceline!"]. I was shaking, I was so mad when I found out they were not going to refund me. I told them quite plainly that they had lost a customer - FOR GOOD. She had the gall to ask me before I hung up if she could do anything else to help me. "You haven't helped me." I replied.

I walked back in to the hotel, and after being quizzed by the clerk about my statement regarding the smells in the hallway, she agreed to give me a room on a different floor with two beds [as long as I paid 20$ more]. My husband was beside himself. He asked me if I would just let him take us to another hotel and loose the money on this one. I was determined that Priceline was NOT going to keep my money and make me pay full price at another hotel because of their refusal to refund me. We were in this for the long haul - the whole weekend - even if they spit on our pillows while we were out the next day. We unloaded the car, and I got out my pen and paper to make a list of the awful conditions of the room, lest I forget the torture they put me through.

The carpet had seen better days (and was well acquainted with many non-recognizable substances that could qualify under the "goo" heading). The white linoleum was stained and peeling up at the edges near the corners and at the tub. The caulk was missing on the floor near the bathtub [wonder if it rained in the downstairs bedroom when my kids took a shower?]. There was a sliver of counter space that went around the sink and the back of the toilet, and had the lid to the toilet not been shut, my bathroom duffel bag would have ended up inside it. The door trim was banged and scuffed. There were pubic hairs on the floor. There was a huge funnel-shaped spider web on the lower portion of the window looking out. I had to search the room to find a trash can [hidden in a "kitchen" cabinet], so the first night, the trash went in the sink.

The toilet had to be flushed twice. The walls had cracks. The hinges were rusted. The card keys gave us trouble on the first day, and on the second day [thanks to our blabbing friends at Priceline], they didn't work at all. I suspected revenge was the motive when we got locked out and had to go get new keys at the front desk. On the second night, not only did our keys get turned off mysteriously, but our air-conditioner stopped working. It sounded like clanging metal and tapping spoons on kitchen pots all night. I finally figured out that if you turned it on "Medium", it actually got a little colder. I wondered if the clerk had specially picked this room for us after Priceline told them "we hated them". In the morning, the carpet around the A/C was completely soaked with cold water. The TV remote stopped working as well. For that many things to go wrong in one hotel room seemed almost comical... at least it does today - but not really when you are experiencing it.

Half way through the second night, as I lost precious sleep, I reminded myself to write all of this down so that Priceline would PAY. Yeah, maybe I lost my money, and they wouldn't refund me... but they were certainly going to PAY, and dearly. The last straw for me was the morning we checked out. Before we left for breakfast, we got our things together (tip-toeing on the edges of the blankets to find our shoes so our feet wouldn't have to touch the nasty floor). A roach crawled out from under a cabinet and across my foot as it made it's way towards the bed my children had slept on. I screamed and jumped as my husband looked down and stepped on it. "I knew it!" I screeched, "I knew they had roaches! This is the grossest hotel I have ever stayed at!"

"Nope, honey." My husband said, laughing, "Remember that nasty place in Dallas - the Scottish Roach Motel?"

"Oh, yeah, I said. OK, this is the second grossest place I've ever stayed at." I said in agreement.

When I returned my keys, the clerk didn't ask me if we had enjoyed our stay. I think she knew better. So, while I'm certainly glad the place we stayed at is offering free room and board to people who aren't able to afford much right now... I am sorry that they are reduced to such levels of nastiness as to have to stay at places such as that! I am sure of one thing... I won't trust Priceline to reserve a room for me again. I'll be using a service that allows me to pick my own room! You can chalk this post up to FAIR WARNING!

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Anonymous said...

What a nightmare, Heather! (And why isn't your email working, anyway?!?)


Anonymous said...

Heather- I'm sorry you witnessed such horrible conditions . Better luck next time , right !!!!! Give me a call I miss you...... Love ya, christi -

Rhonda said...

Ewww! Ick! You see, that's why I've never used Priceline. I'm just not that trusting. :)

Jan said...

Wow...what an awful experience. I'd be mad as a hatter. However, glad that you survived with your sense of humor still intact.

Sprittibee said...

:) Yes, I'm sorry for priceline. They could have avoided a PR nightmare by just quietly switching my hotel reservations to the La Quinta down the street (which they had given me reservations at a number of times before without hassle).

Sprittibee said...

By the way... the email thing has to do with the server at the church which I get my free email account from. I can't get on the mail website to even check it. It gives me a server error. I called faithhighway, and they said they would look into it.

Admin said...

I've used priceline as well and always gotten a great hotel. I'm really surprised at this. I have noticed though, that sometimes you can go through or other sites and get great rates as well. You can use to send a letter to priceline and have it posted for everyone to see.

Scott Fouru said...

I was referred to this post via a search for Priceline policies, so hence the seemingly disembodied nature of this comment. While I don't think your Priceline experience is necessarily unique, I think you have also discovered some of the flaws inherent in the system.

On their end, congratulations to you--you have inadvertently discovered their biggest Dirty Little Secret: customer service at Priceline, at least as most Americans are familiar with the term, is virtually non-existent. From what I've seen, it doesn't matter if you call or e-mail them, the response is always the same--you bought it, you paid for it, you read and agreed to the terms; any complaints should be resolved between you and the provider (woe be to you if the provider is intransigent). This is one reason I will not use them for airline ticketing, unless a) there are few other options, b)I'm within 15 minutes of the departing airport, and c)there are as few outside-my-control disruptions as possible (potentially severe weather, strikes, etc). Basically, after they have your money, you're on your own. (I'm sure there are exceptions, but I'm willing to bet they are rare.)

On your end, here are some ways I think you went wrong. Before I get into that, let me say I come from a perspective as a generally satisfied Priceline hotel and car rental customer. I've used them on numerous occasions over the past 6-8 years in several different locales and have usually been pleased (save for the occasional less-than-charitable remark or attitude from a hotel front desk rep that gives me the idea they think Priceline customers are one step removed from odorous homeless people). First mistake: selecting a two-star property. You don't mention which property you stayed at (for reasons obvious to me), but I'm guessing it was on the order of a Homestead Studio Suites, which is always a red flag. As an aside, I've had both positive and less-than-positive experiences at this chain, but I generally try to avoid them unless I'm mentally prepared to stay there (and since I travel less currently than I used to, I usually don't want to spend my precious travel time at a sub-par establishment). There are even parts of cities I refuse to include in my Priceline offer, because I know that if I select a two-star property, the odds are pretty darn good I will end up at one of their locations. Second mistake: putting your family in anything less than a three-star property, or using Priceline at all for a family stay. I know this seems counter-intuitive (don't families need to save the most money?), but as a former hotel employee, I know a little bit about the inside workings of such places and why Priceline makes the disclaimer that the room requests are essentially generic and that if you want to make specific requests such as a smoking preference, room/bed type, etc, you need to contact the property directly. (See DLS, above.) Of course, there are no guarantees other than you get a room at what they consider to be their rating level. (This brings up another point--their 'star' rating level is unique to them alone and can't be compared to any other entity's rating system. I'm even willing to bet it varies from city to city and even in geographical areas within a city.)

I make this point because I think it's much easier to tolerate substandard accomodations if it's only you and your spouse or a close friend. After all, travel is an adventure, right? But when you throw in charges you are responsible for, I think it changes the dynamic significantly. Kids, even the best behaved, usually have expectations as to what travel and a hotel stay involves. Many Priceline properties are under renovation or are about to undergo renovation (or, as you found out, in general disrepair) and things like pools, game rooms, vending machines, etc are likely to be inoperable as well--or just non-existent. This is usually a moot point for adults, but for kids can be the difference between a cool trip and feeling like being inadvertently locked in the bathroom. In my view, better to spend a few bucks and finding a decent place to stay so that everyone is comfortable and happy and has what they need.

Your third failing, as I see it, is less concrete, but no more important: don't assume past experiences are a valid predictor of future occurrences and know the area you wish to stay in. As ye olde saying goes, knowledge is power. When planning a trip, the more you know about the area (or can find out), the better off you will be. Just because you were placed in the La Quinta down the street in the past doesn't mean you will be placed there in the future. I have seen where the same type bookings will result in different placements, even though Hotel A might have more vacancies than the Hotel B that Priceline places people in. This is all part of their mysterious booking process and rather than try to figure it out, it's best just to allow for it.
I have found that it's best to find out exactly what properties are in a specific area so that you know what your possible options are. A few years ago, I was able to determine which hotels were in the area at a conference I was attending, and I was pretty certain that by making an informed offer, I could get in the hotel next door to the conference hotel, for the rate I was willing to pay (and that the hotel would be foolish not to accept). I did, and I got that particular hotel. Did it involve a little work and effort? Absolutely. But the end result was that I shaved off at least 50% of my lodging costs and couldn't have stayed in a better place, even the conference hotel. Now, I don't suggest that this will work for every one all of the time (YMMV, in Internet lingo), but the more you know, the better off you will be. As I stated earlier, there are some parts of metro areas I will not bid in, lest I get stuck in a hotel I don't wish to stay at. It's all part of the Priceline 'game'.

Lastly, a general word on hotels and cleanliness. No matter where you stay, never walk barefoot on any area of any hotel (room, common areas included), save maybe for the pool area (then wash your feet after you go back to your room). You have no idea as to who used the room before you or what bacterial or fungal infections they might have carried and thus transmitted (this goes for Roach Motels as well as Ritz-Carltons---you just never know). Never touch any part of the bedding other than the sheets; items such as blankets and bedspreads and pillows are probably cleaned as often as the average homeowner cleans their outside windows. I always carry a spray bottle of neutral disinfectant (the kind used in hospitals) for wipeable surfaces and a can of Lysol for those that are not. I won't add to this blather by elaborating, other than to say the average hotel guest would be surprised by how often and thoroughly the rooms are not cleaned.

I don't mean to imply that you were at fault for your Priceline experience, and they should have better resolution methods (or perhaps just some resolution methods), but it was a little like taking a shortcut down a dark alley without pepper spray: a gamble. For better or for worse, Priceline is not unlike gambling or investing in stocks & bonds--a rewarding and interesting experience if you are knowledgeable about the process; a less-than-favorable one if you don't, and not without risks in any case.

Sprittibee said...

Scott - thanks so much for the commentary. You were absolutely correct in your assumptions and I will take that to heart. However, I rarely travel anymore, unless staying with relatives or friends... and it may be a long time until I need another "cheaper" hotel experience. Thanks also for the insider notes on cleanliness. I always have suspected the worst, but now I don't feel so guilty carrying my houseshoes and anti-bacterial gel. ;)



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