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When Hotel Sites Don't Click


Service desk: 866-468-9473 (24/7)

E-mail: support@hotwire.com

Mailing address: N/A


Service desk: 800-774-2354 (24/7)

E-mail: hotel@cs.priceline.com

Mailing address: N/A

HOTEL CHAINS: For links to the major chains, check www.hotelstravel.com, an online directory of hotel and other travel-related Web sites.


Better Business Bureau. To report a problem, call 703-276-0100 and find the phone number of your local branch, or go to www.bbbonline.org.

• Several Web sites act as trading posts where consumers can offer their views on Internet booking agencies. These include www.bizrate.com, www.complaints.com and www.epinions.com. -- Gary Lee

Web Sites That Let Hotel Guests Tell All

Who you gonna trust? In an online world where hotels pay for placement on travel booking sites and ad copy can be difficult to discern from editorial reviews, it's hard to know where to turn. That's why I go straight to the source: reviews from fellow travelers. Online guidebooks, such as Frommers.com, can be helpful, but there's no substitute for no-holds-barred comments from road warriors themselves. Web sites devoted to consumer reviews provide frank assessments, sometimes with dozens of critiques for a single hotel.

Travelers' reviews appear on advice sites (TripAdvisor.com), general consumer sites (Epinions.com), even a major booking site (Travelocity.com). Their critiques can help you get past the glowing descriptions hotels write for themselves and go beyond the properties that surface at the top of travel booking sites because they pay to show up first.

A word of caution, though: Travelers appear most motivated to write after a bad experience. Perhaps it's a way to get back at the hotel or just a method of blowing off steam. So don't base choices on one review -- look for patterns. And beware of reviews that sound like ad copy; those may be written by a PR staffer posing as a consumer. But overall I've found the vast majority of reviews to be genuine and fair, as well as a valuable tool for making informed choices about where to stay.

Among the options:

TripAdvisor.com. Launched three years ago as a collection of destination advice, TripAdvisor now specializes in consumer reviews of hotels, resorts, inns and packages. More than 90,000 hotels are listed, and popular properties have 60 or more consumer reviews. Some hotels can be booked via TripAdvisor's new QuickCheck system (note: QuickCheck might not work if your computer blocks pop-up windows). Using a combination of editorial and consumer reviews, the site ranks hotels according to popularity. TripAdvisor CEO Steve Kaufer says rankings are independent of commission agreements. "In some cities, the top hotel can't be booked from our site, so we can't make any money on that," he said. The site sells sponsored links for hotels, airfares and packages, but these are clearly marked. With so much going on, navigating the site can be confusing, but it's worth the effort.

Sample review for the Drake in Chicago: "The hotel staff were attentive, friendly and were able to satisfy my multiple requests. I'm not sure why others have found fault with the Drake -- perhaps they like brand new hotels where all the rooms look alike. I enjoyed my stay tremendously and will return again and again."

Travelocity.com. As a top booking site, Travelocity is to be commended for enabling its customers to post frank and sometimes scathing hotel reviews. To find reviews, select "Hotels," then choose a city. A list of hotels will be displayed with a link to "Traveler Reviews." Each reviewer rates hotels with one to five smiley faces, but much more valuable are the comments. Here's one for New York's Grand Hyatt: "This place is awful. Wallpaper is peeling off, bums outside the door, linens and towels that look like they came from a shelter." A few other reviewers echoed these sentiments, but one traveler wrote: "After reading the reviews I was very apprehensive about this hotel. I found the rooms clean and the size sufficient. The staff was very friendly and helpful."

Epinions.com. Though this isn't primarily a travel site, Epinions has thousands of reviews for hotels in the United States and abroad. Put a city name in the search box and select "Hotels and Travel." After you choose a hotel, click "Read Reviews." Most give each hotel a star ranking from one to five and rate the rooms, service and location. Above the text descriptions are lines of pros and cons. To read the full description, click "Read more" -- some reviews make Russian novelists seem concise by comparison.

I found 150 hotel listings for Las Vegas. Here's one guest's take on the Bellagio: "The service at the Bellagio came nowhere near the Four Seasons. It ranged anywhere from friendly, to amateurish, to laughable, to downright rude -- particularly in the casino!"

Fodors.com. This online guidebook includes consumer reviews alongside its hotel and restaurant listings. From the home page, select "Hotels" and choose a city; you'll get a page of listings with editorial advice from Fodor's. To see what consumers think, click "User Rating ." Travelers rank hotels on a scale from one to five with grades for the room, atmosphere, service and value. The site seems to attract a knowledgeable and upscale clientele who appreciate service. Searching for a room in Paris, I found comments endorsing the Artus Hotel, with several reviewers praising the service and location. Here's one: "The staff (everyone, but especially Sanjay) was fabulous and incredibly helpful. For our last evening in Paris, Sanjay pulled strings to get us dinner reservations at a restaurant we wanted to try."

HotelShark.com. Devoted exclusively to hotel reviews and boasting an easy-to-use design, HotelShark seemed promising when it launched a couple of years ago. But it's yet to reach a critical mass -- many hotels have just one or two reviews and some major properties aren't listed. Without a selection of reviews, it's impossible to find patterns. In Atlanta, for example, only five hotels are reviewed. Here's an excerpt from one -- in fact it's the only one -- for the W Atlanta: "Away from the maddening crowd at Perimeter Center. But the coolest hotel in town."

WhereToStay.com: Covering hotels in the Caribbean, Bermuda and Hawaii, WhereToStay features consumer reviews but only for a fraction of the properties listed. To find reviews, select an island with the "Select Location" menu and check the "Reader's Rating" column. If a hotel is rated, you can click "Read" to see consumer reviews. Here's a sample review for the Crystal Cove in St. Thomas: "The unit was older and in need of painting, but in spite of this our needs were met. I want to thank Alice, the manager of the property, for assisting our every need with a smile and immediate action to make our stay comfortable."

Online forums. Discussion groups allow you to ask advice about places to stay. For example, some forums at Flyertalk.com and LonelyPlanet.com (click the Thorn Tree link) discuss hotels and offer tips from fellow travelers. Usenet groups are another excellent source; to peruse these forums, go to www.groups.google.com and enter a search term such as "New Orleans hotel." Read through the postings before asking for recommendations. These forums are based on participation, so when you get back from your next trip, pick a forum and let the world know what you think.

Michael Shapiro, a frequent contributor to the Travel section, is a travel columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle and author of "Internet Travel Planner."

-- Michael Shapiro

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