Saturday, July 23, 2016

Consumer advisory

Adrienne and the 18-year-old are off on a European holiday that we can't really afford, so the 16-year-old and I thought we would spend a few nights in Sydney. A pretty stupid idea, really, given how much the European trip has set back the household budget, but what are you going to do?

We figured on taking the train, because a few people had told us that it is quite a nice trip (it is). We had some activities on the list. But where to stay? I had played around a bit on Airbnb but didn't really have a feel for it. A work colleague hopped on to (which Adrienne has used before, with good results) and noticed a room with two single beds at the Sheraton on the Park for a price that was not too much higher than it seemed like we would be paying for any old hotel room. Describing it, as I recall, as something like the "deal of the century", he more or less insisted, and so we deferred to his better knowledge of the city. We probably couldn't really justify the expense, but, as I said, what are you going to do? Adrienne did the booking, as I am relatively (actually, scrap that "relatively") useless in that regard.

We only had to walk in the front door of the Sheraton on the Park to know that it wasn't our kind of place, and that the people staying there were not our kind of people. The 16-year-old observed that it seemed pretty fancy. (I could see him doing the maths behind his eyelids.) I bluffed my way up to the front desk and (unlikely as it must have sounded) said that I had a room booked. The girl behind the desk (who was very nice) did us the courtesy of checking the list instead of peremptorily calling for security, and, lo and behold (she did her best to hide the surprise), my name was on there.

Sir, she said, You will be in a room with a queen size bed. Well, this was not a good start. But, I said, We had booked two single beds. The girl enquired if we had booked direct, and I said it was through She then told me that bedding is not guaranteed through third-party booking sites.

I was at a disadvantage here, because I hadn't done the booking myself, but I was pretty confident that we had quite clearly and unequivocally booked two single beds. The short answer was that they didn't have any at that price, but there was one room available with two single beds overlooking Hyde Park (the room we booked had "city views") which she could give me for the "discounted" rate of an additional $60 per night.

I mentally weighed up the options: (a) trying to find somewhere else to stay; (b) sharing a bed with the 18-year-old for three nights; (c) making a public scene at the lobby of the Sheraton on the Park; and (d) finding an extra $180, which, the point being, we were over-extending ourselves anyway. The first three were easy to cross off, which left me reluctantly opting to postpone my retirement for a bit longer than I had been hoping.

Up in the room, where we did have, I must admit, a pretty nice view (you could see the harbour if you stood on tiptoes), and a black marble bathroom (what the heck am I going to do with a black marble bathroom?), I jumped on the phone and checked over what our booking confirmation actually said. There, in black and white, were the words "two single beds". I went back downstairs: reluctantly, obviously, but my inherent distaste for injustice is slightly more active when the injustice is directed towards myself. The same girl at the desk had a look at the confirmation on my phone and spoke to somebody else. Ah, you see, was the sense of what I was then told, the word there is "Requests". As in, the customer "requests" two single beds. It doesn't mean you are going to get them. They go to our own paying guests first. I was also told that if I had read the page from which the hotel was booked, I would have seen that it says "The hotel doesn't guarantee customer requests". But we can give you free wi-fi, which usually costs $20 per day.

What the heck. I took the free wi-fi. (Which I didn't need.) I enjoyed the view. (Which I hadn't felt the need to pay for in the first place, and I can't say my enjoyment of it was entirely free of resentment.) The black marble bathroom? Whatever. The beds were comfortable, I will give them that, but then I would assume that they were no different from the beds in the room we thought we had booked. Other than that, it was just a hotel room. (Plenty of unwanted noise came through from the room next door, for example. Plus, they would appear to have charged us $5 for a small packet of UHT milk. In my experience of regular hotels, the milk is complimentary, like the tea bags.) Everything else is just marketing.

It's a bit futile to say we certainly won't be staying here again, because we wouldn't be anyway. But the point I want to make is: people, please don't make the same mistake I did. If the people behind the desk are right in saying that a disclaimer exists on the booking page, I still find it hard to accept that it is, in any way, reasonable for travellers to not find out that their "request" has not been granted until they are at the desk of the hotel, and therefore, for all intents and purposes, at the mercy of the hotel. And furthermore, I would be interested to see what would happen were somebody to test whether the choice of bedding arrangements, which is actually one of the things you enter in order to search for, and therefore book, a room, can be construed to be a mere "request" (as opposed to, let's say, whether the room has a black marble bathroom, or free wi-fi, or views of the harbour if you crane your neck), and particularly whether it is reasonable for the unsuspecting customer to have understood it as such. It wouldn't be that hard to imagine a scenario where, unlike with the two of us, there would actually be no choice to be made by the two guests, and where it would be highly inappropriate for them to share a bed. What then?

So, the moral of this story. Well, there are two, actually. One: if a hotel seems more tony than your station in life would usually suggest that you might stay in, it is probably best to stay away. Two: if you are booking a room at the Sheraton on the Park via, and you have any "request" as to the bedding arrangements, you are doing so at your own risk.