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]

Hotels That Serve Glorified Prison Food For Breakfast

breakfast sausagesI’ve never been to prison, but I can’t help but wonder if convicts get a nicer breakfast than what you find on the breakfast buffets at most American chain hotels these days.

This year, I’ve had the displeasure of sampling the breakfast buffets at almost every major hotel chain, including Hampton Inn, Residence Inn, Holiday Inn Express, Hilton Garden Inn, Hyatt House, Westin and others. I’m no Gordon Ramsay, but I’m not impressed with any of them, even when the breakfast is free.

In fact, I view the free hotel breakfast as a decidedly mixed blessing. I love going out for a nice breakfast when I’m traveling but I’m also budget conscious and I have a hard time treating my family of four to breakfast when there’s a free breakfast at the hotel, no matter how dreadful it may be. But on many occasions, going down to eat the free breakfast feels more like an obligation than a pleasure.prison cell alcatrazLast week, I stayed at an otherwise excellent Hyatt House location in Illinois and encountered one of the more pathetic breakfast buffets I’ve seen in some time. On one morning, I put three silver dollar pancakes on my plate only to discover that they were as hard as hockey pucks. It was 8.30 a.m. and they clearly had been sitting around since the buffet opened at 6. I approached the front desk with them in hand and handed them to the sweet young woman on duty, more or less for fun, but also to make a point.

“Would you eat these?” I asked.

“Oh, my God, no, I would not,” she admitted, upon noticing that the pancakes were hard enough to crack someone’s skull with.

She apologized and I asked to have the pancakes back as a sort of bizarre souvenir but she wanted to keep them to show to her manager. Sadly, bad food is par for the course at many breakfast buffets not only in the U.S. but also around the world. Here are a few ways hotels tend to ruin their breakfast buffets.

Not everyone wakes up at the crack of dawn

I’m usually traveling with two little boys who like to sleep in, so I almost never get down to breakfast at 6 or 7 when they first open. In places that are very busy, they might replenish the food and beverages frequently, but at places that aren’t very busy, they might just set a large quantity of food and drink out at opening time and just leave it there for the next two to four hours.

Beverages are warm, Food is cold!

Some places set the milk and juices out without any way to keep them cold, and have inadequate heating to keep the food warm.

Nothing but sugary, dessert-like breakfast items

OK, I admit it: those Otis Spunkmeyer muffins taste pretty damn good, but putting a bowl of those suckers out is more appropriate for Halloween than breakfast. Men’s Health did a piece on the worst foods you can eat for breakfast at hotels, and the least healthy things to eat are items you see everywhere: sausages, waffles, cranberry muffins and fruit flavored yogurts to name a few.

Stale Cereal

I wish hotels bought their cereal from Trader Joe’s but that’s probably a pipe dream. The reality is usually a choice between Cheerios, Wheaties, Raisin Bran, Frosted Flakes and Fruit Loops, often stale, and sometimes with lukewarm milk to boot.

Wonder Bread (or worse)

I don’t actually require a ton of food for breakfast. In fact, I’d be satisfied with a piece of toast, if it were from good bread, but hotels tend to buy the cheapest, blandest bread, English muffins and bagels imaginable. I’d be satisfied with a hotel that had nothing more than some good quality bread products: croissants, bagels, toast, etc.

No Variety

This problem is particularly pronounced when you stay in a hotel for several days or weeks. How many days in a row can you eat runny eggs, shriveled up, fatty sausages or very lame, yet highly fattening waffles?

Do you want some coffee with that warm, murky liquid you’re drinking?

Finding a good cup of coffee at a hotel breakfast buffet is difficult indeed. I tend to bring my own cup in places that have high quality coffee in the room but not down at the breakfast buffet.

Quantity, Not Quality

Most hotels feel like they need to provide options, but I’d rather see a hotel provide a few high quality items than a dozen poor or mediocre ones.

Bottom line

You get what you pay for, right? But is the “free” breakfast really free? Not really, because hotels build the cost of it into your room rate. Of the hotels I’ve stayed at that have a free breakfast buffet, I think the Residence Inn is the best, but that’s not saying much. Small bed and breakfast places tend to have the best breakfasts, but many of them don’t welcome families with very small children. Personally, I’d rather have lower room rates and go out for breakfast. What about you?

(Photos by Dave Seminara and Tim Pearce, Los Gatos on Flickr)

Boston Hotel Evacuated After Suspected Drug Lab Discovery




When I think of places to hold my next meth lab, the Holiday Inn doesn’t exactly spring to the front of my mind, but apparently it did for one Peabody hotel guest. Police uncovered a suspected drug lab at a Boston area Holiday Inn in Peabody.

The suspected lab was discovered when a security guard noticed smoke coming out from under the door. “The security officers reported they saw a large amount of chemicals in the room, which was highly unusual,” Police Chief Bonaiuto told the Boston Herald. “They also said the person who rented the room had left the room and they did not know where he was. As a precaution the entire hotel was evacuated.”

All 190 guests of the hotel – including 25 children – were evacuated. At least one witness said that they were told the room was a potential meth lab, but police have not confirmed the nature of the chemicals or released information on the name of the person holding the hotel room.

“I can tell you there were numerous chemicals present in the room and it’s being followed up on by members of the Peabody police detectives unit,” the police chief was reported saying.

Holiday Inn Express revamp includes pancake machines

Move over, Rooty Tooty Fresh ‘N Fruity. There’s a new hotcake in town. InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG), parent company of the Holiday Inn family of brands, have unveiled pancakes as the secret weapon for the newly revamped Holiday Inn Express hotels.

All of the business traveler-oriented Express properties will introduce a 24-hour market center with grab-and-go options, and an industry-first: a pancake machine, by March 31, 2011. Thirty test hotels already offer the machine, which uses commercial bags of pre-made mix (just add water!). Dollops of batter drop onto a Teflon-coated cooking belt, yielding a perfectly cooked, great-tasting product, every time. The machines produce one pancake every 18 seconds, ensuring even the hungriest executives will get their fill.

IHG is nearing completion on its three-year Holiday Inn brand relaunch campaign. One of the biggest changes has been the implementation of the “social hub” concept, which, according to HotelNewsNow.com, takes “what has traditionally been separate parts of the lobby–the bar, the food and beverage area, [and] the lounge area–and bring[s] them together in one space.” The thinking is that such enforced coziness will provide an “environment to relax, eat, have fun, work, spend time with family, friends or colleagues,” says Verchele Wiggins, VP of global brand management for Holiday Inn.

[Photo credit: Flickr user d.loop]

Man fined $65 for letting pet python crawl around Holiday Inn hallway

A 25 year old man from Mason City, IA has been fined $65 for letting his pet snake crawl uncontrolled through the hallways of the local Holiday Inn.

The man was a guest at the hotel, and apparently felt that his 5 year old pet python needed some exercise. What convinced him to let the snake loose in the hallway is a mystery, but the hotel manager says the man was apologetic about the incident.

Now, I’m not a pet owner myself, but I do understand people who love their pets a lot – but to let a python loose in a hotel hallway just boggles the mind.

The Holiday Inn manager did remind guests that the chain is pet friendly, but that their hospitality ends with cats and dogs. So, next time you take a trip, you may want to find a pet-sitter for your python.