Room rage: when online bookings go horribly wrong

The Gresham claims a full rate of 500 pounds a night.
The Gresham claims a full rate of 500 pounds a night. 

What do you do when the "luxury" hotel you booked online turns out to be anything but? Winsor Dobbin writes from experience.

It was not an auspicious start. The lift containing myself and two French guests was standing stock still on the ground floor, refusing to budge.

After much pressing of buttons and bemused Gallic shrugs, it finally jerked its way into action, depositing me on the fourth floor, where the carpet looked as if AC/DC and Cold Chisel had been partying on it for weeks.

My room was not much better. Although I had requested a double room when booking, I had been allocated a hostel-style room with four single beds, covered with '60s-style quilts. And with no air conditioning, or fan, the room was insufferably stuffy. The choice was to open the window and let in the street noise, or eventually expire from lack of oxygen.

While the bedroom was minimalist at best, the bathroom was worse; the shower had virtually zero pressure and I had to stand under a few dribbles of water. Not happy Jan.

All this was, to a certain extent, my own fault. I'd left a free night in my schedule and made a late booking on Wotif.com without taking the precaution of checking the hotel out on TripAdvisor.

But as the Wotif.com website claimed the rack rate for the Gresham Hotel in Paddington was £500 and described the place as "luxurious", the £128.85 I paid should have made it a bargain.

It wasn't. The room was grotty, plain and simple, with free wi-fi just about the only saving grace.

And the "direct walkway" between Paddington Station and the hotel that featured in the Wotif.com description was non-existent.

I've stayed in plenty of cheap hotels in my time - including the excellent Tune Hotel in London a couple of weeks earlier, where rooms start from just £45. What was even more galling was that I could have stayed in real luxury at the superb 5-star The Athenaeum for just £160 had I booked in advance. But by leaving it late to book in an unfamiliar city that was hosting several conventions I'd put myself at the mercy of the market (lesson learned) - and a handwritten "hotel full" sign in the window told me it would be pointless asking to switch rooms.

Other rooms in the hotel may, to be fair, be much better (although comments on TripAdvisor suggest not), but anyone heading to the Olympic Games in London would be well advised to secure their accommodation well in advance.

I'd had previous good experiences with Wotif.com, including some bargains, but I wasn't going to let this one go through without some reimbursement.

In addition to Tweeting about my experience, and doing a TripAdvisor report, I emailed Wotif.com with my comments.

The initial response was not encouraging.

"It's really disappointing to hear that the service you received from The Gresham Hotel did not meet your expectations. I'll make sure that your feedback is passed on to the hotel's management to raise their awareness. The Wotif.com product manager responsible for this region has also been made aware of this matter and your comments will be recorded for our future reference. If we were to find a recurring issue, the hotel's listing on our website would certainly be reviewed."

There was also the usual verbiage about how much they appreciated customer feedback etc, etc.

My email reply was to the point: "Not good enough. As I stated in my complaint, several of the statements on your website are misleading and deceptive and I demand some recompense."

I was then assured: "I have passed your email onto our Customer Relations department so they can look into this matter further."

A further Tweet finally jolted Wotif.com into serious action a week later, with an email saying: "The property has confirmed if you had advised upon your arrival that you were not satisfied with the room allocated, they would have been happy to provide you with other room options. (As mentioned, the sign said they were full). Hotel management have confirmed they are in the process of updating the carpets in every room and expect to have new carpets in every room shortly. (It was the carpet in the corridor I was more concerned about)."

The email said the old building made water pressure an issue, but confirmed the hotel did not have direct access to Paddington station via a footbridge. Wotif.com then offered a 50 per cent refund "due to the inconvenience caused".

So I got £62 back - probably paying what the room was worth. And Wotif.com removed references to "luxurious" and the non-existent footbridge from its website listing. Prices, too, seem to have dropped, although Wotif.com is still claiming that the full room rate is £500.

Christopher Zinn from consumer advocacy group Choice advises making sure you have as much evidence as possible (photographs, conflicts between what was advertised and what was provided) before complaining.

He says you should be firm and polite with your complaint and try to get it resolved at the time, as making a complaint to Consumer Affairs can be "long and drawn out". He says saying exactly what you want, a refund, or a free night, gives a hotel a way out of the impasse. If you get an inadequate response you should then threaten to escalate the complaint to the hotel owner, or chain.

Choice says many hotels and restaurants make advertising claims that are "not justifiable" and Zinn says his group has called for a travel industry ombudsman. "A complaints process dedicated to the travel industry would be very useful," Zinn says.

Using social media to get your point home also puts pressure on the service provider as they are no doubt keen to avoid criticism in a public arena.

"Social media may not get you a refund, but tweeting your complaints can give you a sense of revenge," Zinn says.

As it stands, anyone using an online booking service to secure accommodation overseas has very little recourse if things go wrong.

While contacting consumer affairs, or the local tourist board, might work in Australia (or at least get you heard), it is much harder once you have returned from overseas.

The British Government website DirectGov advises any items sold must be "of satisfactory quality", "fit for purpose" and "as described". The hotel clearly failed those guidelines but it would be a long and complicated process to gain satisfaction from the other side of the globe.

Similarly, you could contact your credit card provider and stop payment, saying it was "in dispute". Again, a tiresome fight would ensue.

My advice is to complain long and loud at the hotel if things are not up to scratch, or to keep the pressure up on your online booking service if they don't appear willing to resolve matters to your satisfaction. In this case, I think Wotif.com acted fairly after some prompting - and I was happy with the resolution of the matter. But it certainly pays to stand up for your rights.

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