The fault in their stars: the perils of booking a hotel room

Misleading star ratings, overbooking and below-standard rooms are just some of the pitfalls people face when booking holiday accommodation

I saw the hotel room, and suddenly I became a complainer. I couldn’t call the front desk to complain about the broken door, because there was no phone in the room and when I went to switch on the news there was no remote control for the TV.

That was my first set of complaints when I marched down to the front desk of the hotel where I was staying so I could report on a conference for this newspaper. Over the next day or two, more complaints spilt out of my increasingly weary mouth: the bathroom was shabby, the hot water wasn’t hot.

They gave me a bottle of wine and a small box of chocolates to placate me and by the time I took a bite out of the dull and dry club sandwich I ordered to my room, I couldn’t even face my own moaning. Broken, I listlessly ate it, my complaining finally defeated.

As this was a business trip, I wasn’t covering the cost of the room myself, so I cut my losses and vowed never to return on my own euro.

But what rights do consumers have if they're not happy with their hotel, whether in Ireland or abroad? And are some guests just difficult moaners who will find fault everywhere? Was I a difficult moaner?

Complaints about hotels certainly do appear to be a feature of modern life. In 2013, about 7 per cent of complaints received by the Irish office of the European Consumer Centre (ECC) related to accommodation abroad. This has increased as more and more consumers book their own accommodation, rather than taking it as part of a package holiday.

Martina Nee of the ECC says the largest number of accommodation-related complaints – 30 per cent – are from customers who say that the property has the wrong star classification. "This was where the accommodation didn't have the advertised facilities or were simply not up to the standard expected by the consumer," she says.

These standards can be subjective, often making such complaints difficult to resolve. But to see whether your hotel did meet the necessary criteria, Google search "Fáilte Ireland hotel classification scheme"; the first search result should lead you to a detailed breakdown of the various regulations.

“Many hotel-booking websites use their own rating classification system which may be confusing for consumers,” says Nee. “For example, while the booking website may indicate that a particular hotel is four star, this may not reflect the official classification attributed to that property in the country where it is located.” It’s a warning for EU travellers to check what rating system their hotel is using.

John Mulcahy, head of hospitality at Fáilte Ireland, says that the number of hotels in each of the five categories, from one to five star, tends to stay relatively stable. There's a confusing caveat: Fáilte Ireland's classification is not the only star-rating system, so hotels can still choose to use another one, such as the AA classification. If in doubt, ask.

Mulcahy says that if Fáilte Ireland receives a high number of complaints, it might bring forward the hotel’s assessment. Cold comfort for someone who feels their stay has been a letdown or, worse, a disaster, but Mulcahy points out that guests are protected by Irish and EU contract law (see panel below).

Overbooked

But disgruntlement at the room is far from the only problem. Cancellation policies (such as non-refundable rates and cancellation fees), no record of the reservation or the accommodation being unavailable upon arrival, a failure to correctly process the booking or the property being overbooked, the incorrect price being displayed, unclear terms and conditions, hotels denying liability and blaming an agency, or an agency pushing the problem back onto the hotel even when the agent hasn’t fulfilled their duty (such as not processing the booking correctly), insolvency, and advance payments being required make up the remainder of guest grievances.

“Some bookings, particularly special offers, are strictly non-refundable and this can sometimes pose difficulties for consumers, who may not realise they have booked a restrictive rate if the relevant terms aren’t sufficiently clear,” says Nee. “It can also happen that the customer makes a mistake when booking, perhaps by entering the wrong dates, but even if they try to rectify it immediately, they can’t do so if it’s a non-refundable rate.”

Ultimately, says Mulcahy, the biggest protection for consumers comes from social media. "Hotel reviews, whether on Twitter, Facebook or TripAdvisor, tell the potential customer what they need to know. Hotels know this now and are very conscious of customer feedback."

With this in mind, it seems that those who don’t invest in raising standards may ultimately pay a price.

Know your rights: What can you do

Any Irish business that describes itself as a hotel has to be registered with Fáilte Ireland, which runs a mandatory classification scheme, rating hotels from one to five stars. This was developed in close consultation with the Irish Hotels Federation.

Fáilte Ireland has a formalised complaints procedure and unhappy guests can also bring their problem to the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission.

There's no EU-wide legislation for the hotel sector, but consumers can fall back on the European Commission's unfair commercial practices directive abroad and Ireland's Consumer Protection Act 2007 here; these apply if the customer is misled or deceived in some way. Outside of Ireland, the regulations vary from country to country; surprisingly, there is no EU-wide sector-specific legislation you can fall back on if you're unhappy with your room, whether in Greece, Germany or Spain.

The European Consumer Centre is the best bet for an unhappy customer. In 2010, the European Consumer Centres Network compared the minimum criteria for a three-star hotel across the EU, Norway and Iceland, and found wildly diverging systems: some countries had mandatory classification, others had voluntary schemes. The network called for standardisation, but it seems we still have some way to go.

Case studies: You win some, you lose some

A customer booked a four-star apartment in Spain through a UK agent. When they arrived, they saw signs stating it was three-star. The agent had given this four-star classification, but failed to give the official rating. After intervention by ECC Ireland, they agreed to refund the customer €200.

A customer booked a hotel via a travel-booking website and later realised that the hotel he booked was not the one he had intended to book (similar name). He contacted the trader and was advised that it was not possible to cancel as he had booked a non-refundable rate.

A customer booked a room at a hotel in Varandas de Albufeira in Portugal. When he arrived at midnight with his family, he found it closed for renovations. He was given no assistance at first and was eventually moved to a sister hotel 8km away, in a different resort. There was no assistance from the agent and the customer wasn't happy the alternative accommodation was so far away and not what she paid for. ECC Ireland did intervene, but the customer got only €300 back.

Source: European Consumer Centre’s files