By Christopher Elliott

When Stephanie Farrow books a nonrefundable hotel room through Priceline, she's promised a four-star property. She ends up with a three-star and when she complains, she's given the runaround. Is her lost star a lost cause?

Q: 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.

A: 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.

But let's take a closer look. As you know, you "name your price" when buying a Priceline hotel. Meaning you place a bid for a category of hotel (in your case, a four-star property) but don't get to pick the place. If your bid is accepted, Priceline assigns your reservation to a hotel of its choosing and charges your credit card immediately.

It's unlikely that Priceline was artificially inflating its hotel ratings. Having followed Priceline's hotel rating system since the beginning, I think it's far likelier that the rating was out-of-date.

Either way, the representative you spoke with shouldn't have brushed you off. Priceline needed to fix this star slip-up right away, offering either a refund or a change of hotel.

As imperfect as it is, the integrity of the star system is important to customers like you. Without an objective standard, Priceline could send anyone to a dump -- and get away with it. (I'm not suggesting Priceline has any inferior hotels in its system; only that such behavior would be possible.)

If you want to be absolutely certain about the hotel you're getting, try booking through a conventional online agency, a hotel Web site, or a real travel agent.

I can understand why you would want to call Priceline to fix this, but an e-mail works a lot better. You can enclose documentation, links to the hotel Web site, and if you're getting the runaround, you can escalate your case to someone higher up the corporate food chain. The best place to start is right here, on its site:

I contacted Priceline on your behalf. It took another look at your case and discovered that the hotel you were staying at had been reclassified as a three-star property. "The customer service agent was not aware that the change was in the works," a spokesman told me. Priceline refunded your entire hotel charge.

Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine


© Christopher Elliott

Travel - My Hotel Lost a Star -- What Now?