Resort fees. This mandatory add-on is the most pervasive scam in the hotel business. To make their rates look better in side-by-side rate comparisons, some hotels and resorts carve out a portion of their true price, give the carved-out portion a plausible name like "resort fee," display the artificially reduced remainder as the base rate, then add the fee back in before you pay. This scam is most prevalent in highly competitive vacation areas such as Hawaii, Las Vegas and the Caribbean, but you may encounter it anywhere. And the amounts involved aren't small: Typical fees run up to $25 a day.
Not really a hotel. A reader reported booking hotels for a trip to Colorado through Hotwire, making nonrefundable commitments, only to discover than three of the places he booked were not really hotels. Instead, they were condos managed by a resort but owned by individuals -- a fact not mentioned by Hotwire. His experience with such condos has been uniformly bad -- insufficient cleaning, worn furniture, and such -- and he wanted out of the deals. Hotwire refunded his payments for two of the places, but refused for the third.
There's no excuse for an online agency to fail to disclose -- in advance -- that a property is a privately owned condo rather than a hotel. Sadly, however, they often fail to inform you.
Misleading location. Hotels often get creative to make their location look better than it really is. This can be as innocuous as "steps from the beach" and "close to the airport," or it can steer you somewhere you really don't want to be. Earlier this year, I arranged a London hotel that claimed to be in Shoreditch, a gentrifying area that has, per the Wikipedia, "become a popular and fashionable part of London." Instead, the hotel was actually in Hackney, which is "a culturally vibrant part of inner London, with both the benefits and challenges that this brings." In other words, "It's no Shoreditch."
Unless you really know a destination area, you can fall victim to "location inflation" no matter how you arrange your hotel. But the worst risk is with an opaque buy: With a conventional online agency, you can at least check with TripAdvisor before you commit.
Star ratings -- but whose? Just about every place that arranges accommodations tells you how many "stars" each hotel carries. What they don't tell you is who awards those stars. In areas that provide government-controlled stars, you may get those, you may not. And in places without any official star system, including the United States, you have no idea.
TripAdvisor and other user-generated rating sources are full of reports about hotels with inflated star ratings. To be fair, my take is that the big online agencies try to keep their stars honest and respond to traveler complaints. Still, those ratings are often inflated.
Opaque or no? You face some risk no matter how you arrange your accommodations. But the risks are greater with an opaque agency -- where you don't know the name of the accommodation until after you've paid. Overall, I remain an enthusiastic Hotwire and Priceline advocate for hotel accommodations. But no matter how diligent, you will occasionally get caught.
(Send e-mail to Ed Perkins at eperkins(at)mind.net. Perkins' new book for small business and independent professionals, "Business Travel When It's Your Money," is now available through http://www.mybusinesstravel.com or http://www.amazon.com)