Holiday Inn Or Hampton Inn? Trying To Decode Priceline’s Star Ratings System

william shatnerI’m a cheapskate and a risk taker, so Priceline’s “Name Your Own Price” bidding tool was made for me. Over the years, I’ve bid on and gotten three- and four-star hotels in cities all over North America and Europe for an average of about $75 per night and as little as $35 using the free-re bid system outlined here. I love the deals but for me, part of the fun is the serendipity of seeing William Shatner, the Priceline spokesperson, pointing at me on my computer screen, watching the page spin and then seeing it spit out a result. It’s a hell of a lot more fun than playing the slots but sometimes the Priceline gods give you a baffling selection.

Before I bid, I usually use the site Bidding for Travel to do a little research and develop a bidding strategy and I often use Priceline’s ordinary hotel search just to see what pops up and what the star level and geographic bidding zone is. For example, if I’m thinking of bidding on three-star hotels in downtown Cincinnati, I’ll look at their search results and take note of what three-star hotels there are downtown in the search results because, chances are, you’ll get one of those. And if you know how to bid, you’re likely to get the room for a lower price than what you see advertised in the search function.I’ve used Priceline for hotels and car rentals dozens of times over the years and have been satisfied with the results at least 90 percent of the time. But last week, I bid on hotel rooms in Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, at the beginning and end of a road trip and found the hotel classifications in both cities puzzling.

In the Steel City, I bid on a three-star hotel in the Pittsburgh South Side zone and got the Holiday Inn Express Pittsburgh-South Side. I was a little surprised because I’d previously gotten Holiday Inn and Holiday Inn Express hotels via Priceline only on two or 2 1/2-star bids, but never on a three-star bid. Also, there are four other HI Express hotels in the Pittsburgh area (not in that specific zone) that are rated 2 1/2-star hotels and one HI Express rated as a two-star hotel in Priceline’s hotel search function.

There are also seven Hampton Inn locations in Pittsburgh that come up in Priceline’s search. Five are rated as two-star hotels and three are rated 2 1/2-star properties. I found the HI Express we stayed at to be adequate but a notch below chains like Hampton Inn, Hilton Garden Inn, Marriott, Hyatt Place and so on.

Later that week, I bid on a three-star hotel in the Cincinnati North-Sharonville zone, after striking out at the four-star level, and got the Holiday Inn I-275 North (now is that a romantic sounding hotel or what?). Despite a lot of so-so reviews of this place on Trip Advisor, I thought it was decent, but again, not quite as nice as many of the Hilton, Marriott and Hyatt brands that I’ve often secured with three-star bids on Priceline. I have no beef with the HI brand but in general I think the quality of the mattresses and pillows and the décor at many HI and HI Express locations are a notch below some of the other major chains mentioned above.

In Cincinnati, Priceline rates four Hampton Inn’s at 2 1/2 stars and three at just two stars. And there is a Hilton Garden Inn and a Homewood Suites by Hilton both rated 2 1/2. In my opinion, these chains are typically ahead of Holiday Inn, not behind it.

Priceline also rates two Crowne Plaza’s north of the city as three-star hotels. Since Crowne Plaza is supposed to be Holiday Inn’s upscale brand, I’m not sure how they can rate nearby HI’s the same as Crowne Plazas. And perhaps most curiously, they rate the Holiday Inn Riverfront just 2 1/2 stars, despite the fact that it has significantly better customer reviews on Trip Advisor than the three-star I-275 location.

After my trip I contacted Priceline for an explanation of how they rate hotels and a spokesperson told me that they evaluate each property on an individual basis, so bidders can’t count on a chain always having the same star rating (i.e. all Holiday Inn’s being 2 1/2 or all Courtyards being three, etc.).

When I asked why a Holiday Inn would be rated higher than a Hampton Inn, for example, the spokesperson said that three-star properties might be more likely to have a full service restaurant and an on-site fitness center than a 2 1/2-star hotel. This didn’t explain my two bids, neither of which had full service restaurants, but he also said that the age of the property and its overall condition are factors. Additionally, Priceline says that they pay attention to the customer service surveys they send out and hotels can have their ratings changed depending on the feedback they get.

In fairness to Priceline, Hotel Deals Revealed did an analysis of their star ratings versus Hotwire’s and found that Priceline was significantly more conservative in assigning star ratings. And hey, if you bid two stars and get a Hampton Inn, that’s a pretty sweet deal, if you ask me.

What can bidders learn from my experience and from Priceline’s response to my inquiry?

1. Do your research. On these two occasions in Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, I didn’t have time to comb through the search function and look at the zones on Bidding for Travel, but this is the best way to preview what you might get.
2. Take their survey. It’s a good idea to complete their survey no matter what your experience is, but it’s particularly important if you have a disappointing stay. If enough customers complain about a property, they will reassign its rating.
3. Expect the worst. Imagine the worst-case scenario and assume that you’ll get the least desirable property. If you can’t deal with the hotel that you least prefer in that zone and star level, either move up a star level or don’t bid at all.
4. What amenities do you want? I rarely take meals at the hotel and if the place doesn’t have a good gym, that isn’t a deal breaker for me. I’m most interested in having a nice room with smart décor and a very comfortable bed with quality pillows and linen. It’s important to know what your priorities are and understand that Priceline takes factors into account that you may or may not care about. For example, if you are keen to stay in a hotel with a full service restaurant, it’s probably pretty risky for you to bid on hotels below the three-star level.

[Photo credit: Loren Javier on Flickr]