I decided I'd stay within the budget set by my own French tourists, so I scoured the internet for inexpensive hotels. Expedia's listing for the Star Inn Hotel Wien Schonnbrun, in Vienna, stood out: it was brand new, modern, and conveniently located. There was free wifi, and the rooms had air conditioning, which is pretty much required by anybody who's been to Europe in spring or summer. I booked the room for a week.
The first thing I did when I got there was turn on the a/c. I wasn't going to spend a lot of time indoors, but when you're trying to sleep it's better to be too cold than too hot. It didn't kick in immediately, but I figured I'd give it some time. After waking up in a pool of sweat two mornings in a row, I asked the desk clerk what was up.
"The air conditioning in the building has been turned off," she said. "Why don't you open a window?"
I take great pains to appear amenable, so I said okay. I opened a window. But the next morning, when I found dozens of flies, gnats, and mosquitos sharing the space with me, I began to have second thoughts. As I squashed them into the sheer white curtains and their blood drenched the fabric I thought, you know, this isn't exactly what I picture when I think "Viennese holiday."
I went back to the desk, where the same clerk gave me the same response. She acted surprised when I told her about the bugs, like it was bizarre they were hanging around my window because everybody else was bug-free. I tweeted complaints to the hotel and Expedia, and when those were ignored I called Expedia.
The agent acted like he'd be helpful. While I was on hold he called the hotel, and when he came back he proudly announced that -- at 10 o'clock at night -- I could pack up all my stuff and move to a different room. "But the air conditioning in the building is turned off," I said. "Why would that do any good?"
This confused him. He put me back on hold and called the hotel again. Everybody talked to everybody else, and then all of a sudden it was nearly midnight. I spoke to a supervisor at Expedia, who said he'd start processing a refund and would try to move me to a different hotel. He told me to check my email for details from 8 am to noon the following day.
I never heard from Expedia again.
When I got back to New York, I discovered Expedia hadn't done anything, and didn't intend to. "You stayed in the room," a supervisor told me, "so you have to pay for it."
"Let me get this straight," I said. "(1) You tricked me into booking a hotel by lying about its amenities. (2) I begged you to move me to a new hotel but you didn't. And now (3) you say I have no claim because I DIDN'T LEAVE THE HOTEL?"
That was about right, he confirmed. He offered me $100, which is roughly a dollar for every hour I spent trying to sleep naked and still sweating, with no sheets or blankets covering me and a hundred mosquitos circling.
I said no thanks.
Since then, I've done some research. All of the information on Expedia's website comes directly from the hotels, and if the information is wrong, Expedia denies responsibility. Which should inspire zero confidence in their customers: I mean, if you book a suite and they stick you in a tuna can, you're hardly going to sue the hotel in Austrian court. Even if you're a frequent traveller, who wants to spring for the wigs?
I told Expedia at the very least they should fix their listing. I'm not holding my breath, because clearly they don't care. In fact, I think this policy will embolden the hotels into bigger lies. We'll probably end up with scenarios like this:
The Star Inn Hotel Wien Schonbrunn's listing will read, "You'll love our new fitness center, with state of the art equipment." And then when you ask the desk clerk where it is, she'll say, "We haven't got one. Why don't you do some push-ups in your room?"
The listing will read, "You'll appreciate our luxury travel bag of posh toiletries." Then when you ask the desk clerk about it, she'll say, "Here's a dollar. Why don't you go to a drug store and buy soap?"
The listing will read, "Those traveling with children will love our free onsite babysitting." Then when you ask the desk clerk about it, she'll leap in a chair, flap her hands and say, "Look at me! I'm a baby, and I'm sitting. WAAAH!"
The listing will read, "Start the day with our complimentary continental breakfast." Then when you come down in the morning, she'll say, "Today's continent is Africa. Why don't you go eat a bug?"