I recently purchased an upcoming 2,200-mile roundtrip flight for $152 — that’s 14 cents a mile. You can barely drive your car for that price these days! On the same trip, every night I stay at my hotel I will hand over the same amount I spend for the entire roundtrip flight just for the right to lock up my suitcase and lie down for a few hours.
While we mount campaigns and lobby Congress about airline passenger rights, service levels at hotels are even worse, despite lodging being the largest budget item in most trips. Let’s look at it: While the flight requires the airline to have a counter to check me in, a terminal gate hired to handle the plane, half a dozen people on the two-hour flight and heaps of fuel, not to mention a right pricy airplane, my hotel room is just one cookie-cutter box among many in a noisy brownfield location off a highway. Downstairs, the hotel’s convention staff is charging some folks I know an arm and a leg for the right to force hundreds of us to stay in the hotel.
And what does the hotel guarantee me? Pretty much nothing.
TV on the fritz? Sorry, a repairman should be here in a couple of days. Internet access not working? Try the overloaded wireless access in the lobby, sir. Need anything at all? Come down to the front desk.
Or worse yet — well, sorry, but we overbooked the hotel, and don’t have a room for you. Maybe you can find a room in a hotel nearby.
Think it doesn’t happen? I was once part of a large group of 40 people who were told at the front desk that the hotel, at which we had a long-standing reservation, was full, sorry — but here’s a list of local hotels you can call.
I was standing there with a contract in my hand, but when I read it closely, it might as well have been a dry cleaning receipt for all the good it did me — the contract very nearly absolved the hotel of the obligation to provide a room, despite having taken our reservation and our money.
Accommodation “Guarantee”: We’ll Attempt to Accommodate You
I no longer have the precise language from our group trip, but here’s an excerpt of the “Guarantee” clause on a recent booking I made at a Sheraton:
In the event more guests arrive than can be accommodated due to hotel overbooking or an unforeseen circumstance, and hotel is unable to hold rooms consistent with this room hold policy, hotel will attempt to accommodate guests, at its expense, at a comparable hotel in the area for the oversold night(s), and will pay for transportation to that hotel.
The entire guarantee pivots on one word: they were really required only to “attempt” to find us an actual place to sleep. Because our group leader had it together, and a few of us had our contracts in hand, our 40-person group actually got some decent treatment — but it wasn’t looking good at first. The front desk folks knew someone had blown it, and thought that the best thing to do was get us out of there as quickly as possible with minimal effort. Their solution: print out a sheet of nearby hotel phone numbers, and suggest we call around for rooms. Of course they would refund the charges for our standing reservation. Next!
The contract said otherwise, however — if not by much, it was just enough that the hotel had to do some of the legwork to get us accommodations. It turned out that they had several rooms available — they just figured it was going to be easier to get rid of all of us than just a few of us — and part of our group checked in immediately. They called a nearby hotel that could accommodate all of the rest of the group and would honor our reservation at the first hotel so we did not have to do a completely new reservation at the second hotel — no small task when you are traveling with a group that has prepaid the booking.
The front desk suggestion that we just start calling hotels was ludicrous; group reservations just don’t work that way. It’s not like we had a group credit card that could handle an $18,000 charge at 8:30 p.m. on a Thursday. Nor did we want to have each person pay for his or her own reservation on a personal credit card; the bookkeeper back home would be asking for heads.
Reader Margot Martin recently wrote to note that she didn’t fare quite so well when she found herself in this very situation recently at a Hilton in New Jersey. The hotel was heavily overbooked, and the staff refused to help her find a new reservation. Their rationale was that, because the hotel was completely full, of course they were way too busy! There’s a catch-22 for you that no paying customer ever should face.
Martin was traveling on a business trip for a major company, so when hotel management found out that they might lose not only Martin’s future business but also that of her company’s reservations agent, they found her a room — in a hotel five miles away. Martin had booked the first hotel because it was within walking distance of all her meetings, which she explained — the staff countered that the second hotel had a shuttle service that drove past her meeting locations. Problem solved! Well, sort of; a business trip she had set up specifically for convenience became a nasty logistical puzzle.
Things can get even worse when booking online. In some cases, unlike an air reservation, your “booked room” is more like a suggestion than a true reservation. Note this clause found in most Expedia hotel reservations:
Expedia will forward your requests to the property. These requests are not confirmed and are subject to availability at the time of check-in.
Expedia will pass your special request along to the property, but such requests are not guaranteed and may incur additional charges.
Because hotel inventory is not always updated in real time, your reservation for a non-smoking king bed could turn into a reservation for a smoking twin before it even gets to the hotel. In fact, pretty much all the hotel will need to do for me is give me a key that works when I check in — and often enough that’s all they’re willing to do.
What Else Do I Get?
So if all goes well, I get a room, sometimes. What else do I get? Well, nothing. The hotel may advertise free Internet, complimentary breakfast, extensive cable TV choices, nice views, a hotel restaurant and more, but the fact is that if for any reason these are not available, well, they’re not available. Your contract “guarantees” you a room — unless, as above, they have overbooked or some other “unforeseen circumstance” occurs, and then they’ll “attempt” to get you a room. And the rules vary considerably from hotel to hotel; in fact, there really are no rules save for whatever the specific hotel chooses to extend and enforce itself.
At a bed and breakfast or locally owned hotel, your options could be even worse, as these lodging establishments typically have far fewer resources than the big national chains do. However, smaller outfits also tend to have fewer computer booking glitches, and are often more inclined toward personalized customer service.
This is especially true at B&B’s, where you are almost always working directly with the owner, who also happens to live in the building. And whereas major chains know the next customer will eventually come along, smaller businesses tend to thrive on customer referrals, so they have some motivation to make everything work out well.
While U.S. hotel chains are pretty much a cookie cutter experience, for better or worse, when traveling internationally you may see much greater variation in the quality of your accommodations. When traveling solo in Morocco a few years ago, I stayed with extremely gracious and accommodating hosts. While traveling in northern Spain with friends earlier in the same trip, however, the proprietor of a fairly high-profile hotel refused to honor our phone reservation because she didn’t like the way one member of our group parked our rental car in front of the hotel. And on a trip to Venezuela a few years back, we arrived to find that not only was our room not ready, but the hotel itself wasn’t ready. In fact, it was still under construction, right down to the plumbing.
At major “first world” hotels abroad, however, your rights are very much similar to those you have stateside — a key and a bed to lay your head are all you are really guaranteed. All of this does change at upscale hotels, where your money talks a little louder, but your reservation and expectations are still honored at the hotel’s pleasure in most cases.
None of this is shocking to anyone who has traveled much; the deck is always tipped just enough to matter in favor of the service provider (the airline contracts of carriage are a perfect example). So what can you do to protect yourself? Here are a few ideas.
Book Directly with the Hotel
I use the popular booking engines for routine reservations all the time, but if I anticipate any problems — for example, if I’m traveling over the holidays when the hotel is likely to be full — I always book directly with the hotel. Sometimes I’ll use the hotel’s Web site, but if I know the place is packed, I’ll book by phone. That way your reservation goes directly into the hotel system, and your credit card is run by the same people who have the power to save a room for you.
No matter where you booked your reservation, a quick call directly to the hotel a day before your arrival to confirm your reservation should reveal or eliminate any potential problems. Get a name when you call, and if there are problems at check-in, mention who you talked to and what they told you. This is also a good time to ask about Internet access, breakfast, whether the restaurant will be open, whether room service is available if you will need it, etc. If you make it clear which amenities are most important to you, you will be more likely to be put in a room where these amenities are actually available and functioning.
Have Your Contract/Guarantee In Hand
When you are standing at the front desk with nothing but your credit card and your ID, many untrained and part-time folks working the front desk are simply looking to get you out from in front of them. If they try to hand you a list of phone numbers to call, but your contract says they are obligated to find you a room — or if they tell you how to get there, but your contract says they are obligated to provide transportation — you’ll want proof. Without this proof, you will get whatever level of service that particular hotel employee feels like giving, which can sometimes be little more than a shoulder shrug and a grunt.
Check Out Your Room
I have stayed in a couple of lemon hotel rooms in which I chose to remain solely because I had already unpacked, and the hassle of repacking and moving to another room was too much trouble. If you have specific expectations about the quality of your room, you are going to have to enforce them yourself. Before you unpack all your stuff, check to see if everything in your room is in order — that the television works, the shower sprays clear water, Internet access is functioning, etc.
If anything is amiss, ask for a different room. If you are already in the room, you might even ask that staff come to your room to exchange keys and help you move; all the elevator transfers are a time-consuming hassle, and you deserve some help with it.
Ask for the Manager
A hotel manager often knows better than front desk staff that his or her real job is to keep you happy. There is no guarantee that the manager will come through, but in my experience bringing any problems to the attention of a supervisor usually inspires staff actually to “attempt to accommodate guests.”
Tell Your Story
You don’t have to be a travel writer to have your say these days, and a little revenge can leave a satisfying aftertaste — post a short review of your hotel on a site like TripAdvisor.com, or share your experience via social media (on sites like Twitter or Facebook). Recent studies say that consumers trust each other more than they do companies and professional reviewers, and you can help others avoid your plight. And don’t doubt that the hotels and other travel providers themselves will read the reviews; many scan their clippings religiously, and they might just shape up when faced with the facts when posted on a site read by millions. The power of the press is available to all of us today — use it!
Editor’s Note: IndependentTraveler.com is a member of the TripAdvisor Media Network.
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