Know your hotel rights when staying somewhere. Learn tips and tricks to make your trip easier and stress free.
It’s imperative to know your hotel rights when traveling.The federal government has an almost complete laissez faire approach to the lodging business. State and local governments are marginally involved, but only to the extent of making sure that a hotel restaurant is up to health standards, stipulating the maximum room rate, or imposing taxes. Some states also have laws stipulating what services or provisions an “innkeeper” must provide, such as a safe deposit box. However, that doesn’t mean that the final arbiter of a dispute between a traveler and their hotel is the innkeeper or general manager. Know your hotel rights.
Remember the way an airline complaint is funneled into a centralized consumer affairs department, which is most often the last and only word on a grievance? When it comes to lodging, there are multiple layers of accountability – and many opportunities for an appeal. A general manager often answers to a vice president in charge of the hotel chain, or to a regional manager. Those, in turn, are accountable to shareholders or investors.
Finally, there are state and local accountability mechanisms, from small-claims courts to better business bureaus, that will help articulate travelers’ hotel rights (and sometimes define hotel rights that many never knew they had). As we’ll show in this chapter, travelers have a final metaphorical ace up their sleeve – a loosely-worded statement of understanding between the hotel and customer that can be leveraged against a property that is denying a traveler his or her hotel rights.
As we examine travelers hotel rights as a guest, we’ll take a look at these areas:
- Hotel ratings – Can travelers trust them? What do they mean? And what are their hotel rights if a property doesn’t live up to its rating?
- Reserving rooms — What’s the difference between single and double occupancy? What if one is bringing children or pets on the trip? We’ll also take a look at the different room rate categories.
- Mandatory hotel fees — Many hotels these days add mandatory fees to their published room rates. Though consumer advocates have been attempting to get the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to declare the practice of adding mandatory fees to room rates misleading and deceptive, the FTC has sought to have simple disclosure of these fees acceptable. All consumers should examine the full cost of accommodation before using a credit card to pay or make a reservation. If there is a hidden mandatory fee, go somewhere else if possible.
The worst city for these mandatory fees, often called resort fees, is Las Vegas, Nevada. Hawaii and Florida are also seeing more and more of this deceptive practice, and it feels to be against your hotel rights. The practice is spreading across the USA. Beware.
- Negotiating a better rate – When can travelers ask for a lower rate, and by how much should they expect a hotel to discount their room? When do they know they’ve gotten a good room rate?
- Overbooking and changes – What happens if the room isn’t available or doesn’t meet the traveler’s standards? What are the traveler’s hotel rights to change a room or get a refund?
- Hotel etiquette – Travelers’ hotel rights in dealing with noisy neighbors, unexpected construction, broken appliances, etc. And, what are travelers’ responsibilities – tipping, gratuities and other courtesies?
- That’ll be extra – Phone, Internet, taxes, minibars, faxes. It can all add up. What are a traveler’s hotel rights if they see a charge that they didn’t expect on their bill?
- Getting credit for it – The lowdown of frequent stayer programs. How do they work and when should travelers consider becoming a member?
- To whom should travelers complain – A primer on the informal web of accountability that keeps a property in check and can help visitors resolve a grievance with their property.
Online Hotel Ratings
Which ones can travelers believe? What if they don’t meet expectations?
Traveler reviews are a new reality; a very good one. They extend the universe of restaurants and accommodations that other travelers can research. They provide and add to the information travelers can use for reliable research. And they are forcing the remaining print guidebooks to include some sort of web interface that allows them to maintain up-to-the-minute information for travelers.
Online travel agencies and review sites all make hotel ratings available to the public. Each of these programs differs slightly. There are no absolutes and there are no two systems that operate exactly the same.
The leader of the pack is TripAdvisor. It now boasts millions of reviews. But other user-generated reviews of restaurants and hotels should be considered, such as those offered on Yelp. They are more often correct than wrong. The more reviews, the better.
TripAdvisor is now filling the void travel guidebooks have abandoned in their quest for sustained profits. Their recommendations are not those of a solo, young, inexperienced, poor, underpaid travel writer, but sourced from millions of real travelers.
Based on my recent real travel experience, with a critical mass of recommendations, and especially when blended with other independent website recommendations, TripAdvisor can be trusted and considered truthful. And I am not the only one — “…98 percent of respondents have found TripAdvisor hotel reviews to be accurate of the actual experience,” according to an independent survey by a trusted travel research organization commissioned by TripAdvisor.
It is not only TripAdvisor.com that serves up comments. Every travel agent website from Expedia to Priceline to Hotels.com to Booking.com has a system of user reviews. Most of them make sure that those providing reviews actually stayed in the accommodations and ate in the restaurants about which they comment.
Sure, some reviews are probably paid, some reviews are exceptionally bad, some reviews may be written by friends of the establishment. But once there are a reasonable number of reviews, the overall descriptions can be trusted.
Print Hotel Ratings and Awards
For years, the Michelin Red Guidebook series has been “The Bible” for those searching for luxury accommodation and the best dining options across Europe. The series is still extremely accurate and has spread from Europe-only to include many large cities in the USA.
My suggestion for using the Michelin Red series of guidebooks for the common traveler is to select the lowest-rated establishment. There are few disappointments and the prices are in line with the competition, but the service and amenities are exceptional.
As travelers research their lodging options, they’ll find numerous awards, ratings and reader surveys that promise to identify the top hotel in its category. These awards range from flawed to fraudulent and are invariably nothing more than marketing gimmicks intended to attract advertising to a magazine or guidebook rather than to offer travelers a credible buying guide. What’s more, practically none of the publications issuing these distinctions are prepared to back them up with a money-back guarantee or warranty, so in the final analysis, the awards are worthless. Still, prospective guests are swayed by these lists, so it helps to understand the different types of awards, how they have been compiled and what they really mean.
- The Reader ‘Poll’ – The most well-known is the Condé Nast Traveler Reader’s Choice award, followed closely by Travel + Leisure magazine’s World’s Best Awards. Normally, the awards are voted on by the magazine’s readers and then compiled by an outside accounting firm.
Many magazines are less than forthcoming with the numbers (for example, in years past, Travel + Leisure has refused to disclose how many readers responded to its ballots, although it insisted the survey was statistically valid). But their fatal flaw isn’t in the response rate; instead, it’s in how the nominees are determined in the first place. Often, a group of editors – editors who are heavily lobbied by publicists representing the hotels – arbitrarily decide who gets nominated and who doesn’t. In other words, the hotel with the most marketing dollars make the nominee list, as one former Condé Nast editor confessed.
- Because We Said So – Other publications don’t bother asking readers what they think – after all, they’re not the hotel experts – and then publish the results under less than clear circumstances. The World Travel Awards, for example, claims to poll travel agents about the best hotels in the world, but according to people close to the award, not a single ballot was ever counted in one year. More reputable awards, such as those given by Andrew Harper’s Hideaway Report newsletter, can also be methodologically troublesome. Harper asks readers for their nominations for their favorite hotels, but he counts the results himself (without help from an outside auditor), making him the last word on who’s in and who’s out.
Bottom line: These awards are essentially a list of editor’s favorites hiding behind a thin veil of what is sometimes a rigged — or nonexistent — vote. Follow them at your peril.
- Ratings – A third category of hotel awards are straightforward ratings that involve little room for subjectivity. Or so travelers would think. The most popular of these are the ones issued by the American Automobile Association (AAA). These seem to follow a strict formula for rating, but once travelers look at the way the numbers are compiled, they quickly realize that the awards are no more believable than the flimsiest reader surveys.
The AAA, which issues the coveted Five Diamond Award for hotels with “impeccable standards of excellence,” dispatches inspectors to the top-rated resorts several times a year, for instance. But with 40,000 properties to review every year, AAA’s staff of less than 100 inspectors often must cover up to three properties a day. People familiar with the ratings say hotel inspectors do little more than run down a checklist, rarely bothering to determine if the hotel is, in fact, worth recommending.
Other consumer publications are so concerned about getting sued that they employ an army of attorneys who effectively edit the awards to the point of being irrelevant. Chances are, if travelers are looking at a rating, most of the useful information has already been weeded out by lawyers anxious to avoid a lawsuit.
That’s not to say that hotel awards are completely useless, only that travelers have to take a hard look at how an award or rating is compiled before they make a booking. And never, ever make a reservation based solely on an award – always check with other sources, such as a travel agent or a well-traveled friend.
Keep a few things in mind, such as who is sponsoring the award. Is it a magazine that’s trying to drum up advertising? Take time reading over the methodology. Are the results audited by a third party, and does it disclose how many ballots are sent and returned? Also, check out how the nominees are determined and who makes the final call on the winners. Hotel awards promise to show the best property, but they almost never back up those promises. There are no money-back guarantees, no assurances of quality or service. In the final analysis, these are promotional tools, not buying guides. Treat them as such.
Star rating systems in Europe
The five-star hotel vs. the three-star hotel has been hotly debated for decades. Normally, these designations applied by national and local tourist boards at international destinations, are based on very technical aspects of the property. They are not based on customer feedback.
In some countries, no hotel can have a five-star rating if it doesn’t have a swimming pool or an elevator (even if it only has one floor). Other rating criteria might mean the most luxurious hotel in town may have a four- or three-star rating only because it does not have its own restaurant or parking garage.
The national quality ratings can be helpful, however, many hotels actually try to keep their ratings down below the five-star level because their taxes are increased based on their star rating. Therefore, these ratings, though helpful, must be taken with a grain of salt.
Reserving rooms and your hotel rights
Hotel booking over the past decade has changed dramatically. Websites like Expedia and Priceline dominate the online world. Apps like hotels tonight offer last-minute bargains. And, short-term rentals together with private rooms are easy to find through sites like HomeAway and Airbnb.
Of course, traditional travel agents can help with hotel bookings and they have plenty of deals that can normally make up for any additional charges that might be applied to the initial booking. Plus, when there is a problem, it is nice to have someone on your site.
The basic rule when booking hotel rooms is to compare prices across hotels on at least three different websites. Of course, many of us get used to one website, but even then prices do not vary dramatically. The other rule is, “Read the Fine Print.”
Hotel pricing is far more competitive than airline prices
Booking a hotel room or short term rental is not the same thing as reserving an airline ticket. Room rates aren’t as volatile as airline ticket prices, and although travelers will invariably find that a suite costs more than, say, a single room, they’ll be relieved to know that the rates don’t change from minute to minute. That’s partially because hotels are restricted in how much they can charge (look on the backside of the door for the “maximum” room rate, which is often set either by the hotel or hotel chain or enforced by a state government) and partially because the lodging business is more competitive than airlines. Which is to say if a hotel began overcharging guests, it’s much easier for those overbilled customers, who’s hotel rights have been violated, to take their business to the lodge across the street. In today’s deregulated air travel business, there frequently isn’t an airline across the terminal that travelers can take their business to without giant fines.
- Confirming the reservation – Once a traveler has decided on a hotel, a reservations agent will ask, “Which credit card would you like to use to confirm your reservation?” The credit card will be used to guarantee the stay. If the traveler fails to show up, they will be charged for at least the first night of the stay. In some cases they are charged for the entire stay, depending on the agreements with the hotel. Whichever credit card is presented at the check-in desk when checking in is the one that will be charged for the room and taxes/fees, as well as incidentals, unless the hotel has a signed charge authorization paper authorizing it to charge a different credit card (such as a corporate or employer’s credit card for business travelers). If traveling on business, make sure the card you present is not charged with the room, but only incidentals.
- Single and double occupancy – Those who have booked the hotel as part of a tour group or package may be in for an unpleasant surprise. When a hotel wants to make its rooms look extra cheap, it quotes rates as “double occupancy” – meaning that it expects two people to occupy the room and split the cost of the lodging. Again, this is a highly disingenuous, but common practice. Also note: The room isn’t completely paid for even when a traveler has settled up a “double occupancy” bill; if there’s a third person or, God forbid, a pet sharing the room, the property can bill visitors even more. Pay attention to the fine print and ask before finalizing the booking.
- Special Rates – Like airlines, which have various fare classes or price categories, hotels also offer various price and rate structures. The so-called “rack” rate is basically the sticker price of the hotel room. Unless travelers have painted themselves into a figurative corner and must make a last-minute reservation, they’ll never pay rack rate. A “discount” rate may apply if they’ve booked in advance on the web or find a coupon. Special “negotiated” rates may also be available through an employer or for those who belong to a discount group such as the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP).
Travelers have a right to ask for a reduced rate right up until the time that they check out. Room rates can be adjusted downward if travelers can show that they are entitled to either a negotiated or discount rate. If a traveler is unfortunate enough to pay the rack rate, then asking for a discount may be enough of a reason to knock a few percentage points off the bill. No one pays rack rate; if a hotel manager thinks a guest might become a repeat visitor, they can almost count on a significant markdown.
There are three opportunities to lower a hotel bill – before, during and at the conclusion of a visit. Some guests do all the haggling before they arrive and are content to pay the rate they negotiated. Others won’t be happy unless their room is free. Here are some of their favorite tactics:
- Before – Opaque web sites such as Priceline.com (http://www.priceline.com) and Hotwire.com (http://www.hotwire.com) allow customers to prepay their hotel before they arrive and without knowing the name of the hotel in exchange for a deep discount. Another favorite strategy is to go coupon-hunting online, at gas stations, rest areas or convention and visitors bureaus. Although these coupons can’t be used in conjunction with a pre-paid hotel voucher, they can pare a hotel bill by up to 20 percent in many cases.
- During – Keep asking for a discount. Many sophisticated travelers will walk up to the counter and ask for the cheapest room rate when they check in. If it’s lower than the rate they’ve been given, they’ll cancel their current reservations and take the less expensive one. They have the right to do that. Beware, some hotels charge the first night’s room 24 hours before the stay. Check carefully.
- After – It never hurts to ask at checkout if there’s any way the rate can be adjusted. This is especially true if the visit wasn’t up to expectations. We’ll take a look at what to do when the hotel fails to meet a traveler’s standards later in this chapter. But in many cases, hotel don’t always need a reason. If a guest has incurred surcharges or racked up a big hotel restaurant bill, the employee checking them out may be able to cut them a break. They’re frequently empowered to do that.
Overbooking and Changes
Hotels often demand that guests pay for at least one night in advance. What happens if a traveler shows up and their room isn’t available? What are their hotel rights? Statistics on hotel overbooking are impossible to come by, since properties are under no obligation to report these incidents to the government. But it does happen frequently.
Hotels – and this is especially true for large chain hotels – use yield management systems similar to those employed by the airlines. These sophisticated algorithms predict how many guests will actually check in and claim their rooms. Based on those numbers, the program then tells the computer reservations system how many rooms it can oversell.
Sometimes the programs don’t work and everyone who said they’d show up actually does. That’s when the hotel must turn guests away. When that happens, the hotel is normally under no obligation to travelers and can simply refund their money and bid them good riddance.
However, that rarely happens.
A hotel will try to make other accommodations for those with reservations. This is called “walking” in the hotel industry. Only if those lodgings are unacceptable and no other arrangements can be made will it return money.
Some seasoned travelers actually believe that having no room at the inn is a good thing. Why? Because the back-up accommodations are frequently better than the ones they originally had. By way of apology, the original hotel may also offer a coupon for a free night’s stay in the future.
If the hotel’s management is indifferent about an overbooking incident, unwilling to offer a refund or alternate, acceptable accommodations, travelers have several options. Legally, the only recourse is to sue the hotel for breach of contract, negligence or fraud. That could be difficult and time-consuming, and even if the visitor wins, the court may not award both compensatory and punitive damages. A better option is to report the property’s actions to its corporate owner or to a local better business bureau. Oftentimes, just the threat of such action will be enough to secure a refund and an apology.
A room change is a different matter. When a hotel offers accommodations that are unsatisfactory – when it’s fulfilled the letter but not the spirit of its contract – then getting some form of redress may be more difficult. Here, again, it depends on the circumstances.
If the assigned room is decorated in a color that isn’t to a visitor’s liking, then obtaining a refund may be extremely difficult, if not impossible. But if the guest is being subjected to round-the-clock construction noise, or even if the room is significantly different from the one promised, travelers may be able to ask for a room change. If another room isn’t available, they are well within their hotel rights to request a refund. This is something of a legal gray area where, unlike the airline industry, there’s no one-size-fits-all legal answer, no rule or precedent one can refer to. The truth is, a disgruntled guest can cite common law and claim a breach of contract until they are blue in the face, but at that moment the reality is that travelers are at the hotel’s mercy. By the time an unhappy guest meets up with a hotel attorney in small-claims court, their visit will be a distant memory, their victory a hollow one.
Travelers make certain assumptions when they are issued a room key. For example, they expect the room to be unoccupied, clean, with all the appliances working. They also anticipate that the environment surrounding the room will meet certain standards – for instance, that it will be quiet enough during the evening so that one can sleep.
A hotel makes similar assumptions about a guest. Don’t worry, there’s no guest code of conduct, but that doesn’t make the hotel’s standards any less valid. Consider the Ritz-Carlton hotel chain’s motto, “We are Ladies and Gentlemen Serving Ladies and Gentlemen.” That doesn’t just imply that guests will be served by someone polite, articulate and considerate; it also establishes a standard for the guests’ behavior.
- This is a hotel, not a private home. Loud parties that run into the early morning are frowned upon. Ditto with defacing hotel property. (Travelers will be charged for any damage.)
- If guests like the service, leave a tip. Make sure to ask about tips. Sometimes they’re included in the price of a stay. But ordinarily, the housekeeping staff can expect a gratuity for good service.
- Follow the rules – they’re for the guest’s protection. When travelers see a sign that warns against consuming alcoholic beverages in a hot tub, for instance, the hotel can reasonably expect visitors to heed it.
That will be Extra
Whenever hotel revenues start to head south, intrepid innkeepers try to make up for the shortfall by cutting rates and piling on surcharges. This gives guests the illusion that they’re getting a deal – until they check out. Here are the most common kind of surcharges:
- A “connection” charge for the Internet.
- A delivery charge for faxes.
- A resort “fee” that covers some incidentals.
- A power surcharge.
One of the must frustrating aspects of surcharges is the lack of notification. Oftentimes, the hotel really does wait until handing guests the bill at checkout. And then – surprise! – they owe up to 20 percent more than they expected to pay. Some states have enacted laws that require hotels to notify guests when there are telecommunications-related surcharges, but more often than not, the warnings are inadequate. Doesn’t this seem to be against your hotel rights?
Disputing such charges often comes down to proving that the hotel’s notification procedures were inadequate or proving the charges are bogus. Getting the fee reversed means showing one, if not all of the following:
- The fee is unreasonably high. For example, one can argue that a $1.50 “connection” fee for a toll-free call isn’t merited. After all, the call didn’t cost the property anything.
- The hotel failed to notify you. Did anyone tell you about the resort fee when you checked in? Did you see the charge in the hotel’s directory or on any of its promotional literature?
- The fee is unreasonable – period. In 2001 many states that weren’t suffering from an energy crisis imposed energy surcharges in order to pad profits. These were never intended to offset the cost of energy. Where are the guests hotel rights?
Remember your hotel rights when looking into hotel for your next vacation. It could make all the difference for your wallet.