"Five-Star" hotels? "All-Inclusive" Cruises? A Consumer Advocate dissects the travel industry's most exaggerated claims.
As the father of three energetic and sometimes unruly young kids, I always look for words like "child friendly" in a hotel's promotional material.
But what does child friendly mean, exactly? At the five-star Florida beach resort we checked into last year, it meant that someone deposited a teddy bear on the bed at turndown and offered overpriced babysitters.
What's a five-star hotel, for that matter? The two most established ratings systems in the United States, AAA and the Forbes Travel Guide, can't agree on that (technically, AAA awards "diamonds" a detail few guests seem to notice). But it becomes even more confusing when you compare them to the European star ratings or one of the rankings offered by online agencies such as Hotwire, Priceline, or TripAdvisor.
In fact, many of the travel industry's favorite marketing slogans are empty claims, either highly subjective or completely unverifiable. Those include assertions that a hotel or a cruise line is "all inclusive," and range from harmless hyperbole-like the Caribbean inn that says it's the "most romantic" in the region, to the patently absurd, such as the airline that brags it has the "best" economy-class seating.
Ah, but don't all businesses embellish just a little? Sure. But travel is special for two reasons. First, it's your vacation, which in an "always on" global economy is in scarce supply these days. A recent survey by Carlson Rezidor Hotel Group found that nearly half of all Americans forfeited their earned vacation last year, and something tells me the rest of the world, with the possible exception of France, isn't far behind. Second, there's a lot of money at stake. Being duped by the hype of airline, a cruise line or a hotel can be an expensive error.
Case in point: Brian Cross, a reader from Chicago who contacted me after making a recent reservation for a "four-star" hotel in Milwaukee, Wis., through Hotwire. The important thing to know about Hotwire is that you book its hotels by star rating instead of by name. The identity of the property isn't revealed until after you've made a nonrefundable reservation. Cross emailed me because he'd landed a room at a downtown hotel that some ratings pegged as a three star. He asked for a refund, but Hotwire stood by its rating, which it says can't be compared with other stars.
"To say that Hotwire's ratings are deceptive would truly be an understatement," Cross complained.
At least someone's trying with those stars. When it comes to claims like "kid friendly" there are no popular, comprehensive ratings systems to help clueless parents like me. You have to do your own homework and you can't always put your blind faith in a brand, even one with a stellar reputation.