published Saturday, September 24th, 2011

Phillips: Don't rely on online reviews about hotels


by Ellen Phillips

I love staying in nice hotels -- restful oases away from the stresses of home. Fortunately (or, unfortunately, as the case may be), with my consumer brain always on high alert, this topic like others bears research before scheduling a stay. While hotels and chains vary, Bottom line Personal and other experts alert us to what guests need to know before booking and checking in:

• Don't always take online reviews at face value. Hotel managers often pretend to be travelers in order to claim positive feedback. In fact, competing hotels do the same, but in opposite form. They'll write poor reviews just to lead us closer to their own facilities. Be careful when checking the website, too. Sometimes rooms appear larger because the photos are taken in deceptive methods, for example.

"Minutes from the beach" could actually mean miles instead of a five-minute stroll. Weed through reviews by unbiased professional reviewers at www.lone lyplanet.com, www.oyster.com, and www.frommers.com.

• Nicer hotels are the most likely to nickel and dime us to death. (At least WiFi is now pretty standard at most lodgings, at least in the lobby.) You'll pay for a bellman to carry your bags to the room and then often-overlooked charges might appear on your bill: surcharges for electricity usage, groundskeeping surcharges, and high check-in early charges, among others. Be sure to ask the hotel before booking what exactly any fees are that might be added to the daily room rate.

Moreover, even before you request a service, ask about the fees. And be sure to closely peruse the bill upon checkout to ensure you've not been hit with some nasty unexpected charges.

• Don't get bit by bedbugs. So much media attention centers on this topic that I won't take column time to reiterate the news. However, a great site to check out your hotel prior to booking is www.bedbugcentral.com.

• Don't use debit cards with hotel transactions. Some of the larger chains have had security breaches in recent years. Those high-tech crooks know if they break into the computer at one hotel in the chain, it'll lead to all the info in all the chain's reservation records. This means they have access to credit and debit card data for thousands of customers. Don't forget you're not afforded the same level of consumer protection with a debit card as you are with a credit card and, as always, carefully check your statements.

about Ellen Phillips...

Ellen Phillips is a retired English teacher who has written two consumer-oriented books. Her Consumer Watch column appears on Saturdays in the Business section of the paper. An expanded version is at www.timesfreepress.com under Local Business.

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