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What's in a Hotel Guarantee?

Before you sleep, your hotel has promises it should keep ... but will it?

hotel reception bellI 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.

How to Choose the Right Hotel

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:
Guarantee Rules:
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.

Discount Hotel Deals

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.

Booking Online
frustrated man computer laptopThings 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:
Room Preferences:
Expedia will forward your requests to the property. These requests are not confirmed and are subject to availability at the time of check-in.

Special Requests:
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.
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