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There are plenty of travel sites that tell you how to do things the right way — but as every traveler knows, sometimes things go wrong. In his bi-monthly Mistake Monday series, TPG Contributor J. Keith van Straaten invites you to learn from his mistakes — his many, many mistakes. (All photos by the writer unless noted.)

I never spend money to stay in a fancy hotel, but my travel companion, Robin, wanted luxury for our trip to Europe last fall. Thanks to the two free nights I earned on my Chase Hyatt card, I had a bargaining chip: I agreed to use my two free nights at the Park Hyatt in Vienna, and in exchange, Robin would use her credit card to pay for an elegant hotel in Venice.

The view of Lido from Venice. - Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.
The view of Lido from Venice. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

Vienna was great and Venice was magical. The morning after our last night, I decided to take a water bus to Lido to do some strolling and shopping away from the tourists. I was enjoying la dolce vita in a waterside cafe when my reverie was interrupted. I suddenly realized something very basic and obvious: It was 2:30pm and checkout time was 12 noon.

I hopped on the next vaporetto and ran pell-mell across the canal bridges back to the hotel. I sprinted up the narrow stairway to our room and, heart racing, inserted the keycard. The door would not open.

The water was rising outside the hotel --and so was my anxiety.
Like water rising in the streets of Venice, my anxiety was mounting.

I skulked my way down to the lobby and explained my situation to the front desk. “I’m so sorry. This has never happened to me. I got caught up in the beauty of Venezia and completely lost track of time.”

The man at the front desk calmly explained in a thick Italian accent that check-out time was noon (he pointed to the posted multilingual sign for good measure) and that they had another party that was ready to check in that had to be moved to another room. I continued to apologize, before he finally said:

“I’m sorry, sir, but I have to charge you for another night. That will be 300 euros.”

That was more than I’d ever spent on a hotel room … and I wouldn’t even be able to enjoy it. This would be my dumbest and most expensive travel mistake to date. After some pleading, he lowered it to 150 euros. I handed him my credit card, got a new room keycard, went back to the room — and packed.

As I headed to the airport, I was angry at myself for having wasted 150 euros, and couldn’t escape the nagging thought that a more experienced traveler would have been able to get out of the situation without paying a cent.

It’s been over eight months since the incident and it still bugs me: Could I have gotten a different result by handling my mistake differently? Luckily, I sometimes write for this site and have reason to ask people for advice — so I did.

Sure, the cheerful front desk manager will smile at you, but you may still be charged for your late check-out.  Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.
The cheerful front desk manager may smile at you, but you may still be charged for your late check-out. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

I consulted with two hotel experts: Michelle has worked front desks and reservations for several high-end hotels in Europe, Asia and the Middle East; Ted has worked the front desk at both a 5-star hotel and 2-star motel in the US. (Since Michelle and Ted are not official spokespersons for their hotels, I’m withholding their surnames.)

Here’s what I asked them:

I guess it seems fair that the hotel charged me. I mean, they did have someone else waiting on the room, right?
Michelle:
98% of the time, hotels close out with at least two or three rooms left unoccupied. Unless it’s the high season for tourism, there’s a convention in town or you were in a suite, there should be some wiggle room for the front desk.
Ted: The possibility of a hotel being at 100% is very low, unless there’s a convention in town. There’s an old saying: “Never count your check-ins before they hatch.”

But how much could the guy at the front desk actually do? Isn’t it hotel policy?
Ted:
The front desk person does have a lot of discretion.
Michelle: Front desk personnel do have the authority to let this kind of thing slide, especially in a high-end hotel. This will vary from property to property; often employees are given a “budget” of hotel credit to use to keep guests happy.

What could I have done differently to get a better result?
Michelle:
Throw their own language at them: “Are you really at 100% occupancy? And everyone’s checked-in already?” Or put the blame on someone else: “Ugh, this meeting ran over and I couldn’t leave.”
Ted: If you had packed your bags before you’d left, they would have known your intention. And still could’ve cleaned the room for the next guest.
Michelle: You definitely could have phoned ahead. It would help them know what’s going on.

If you make a scene at the front desk, hotel staff will only see this. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.
If you make a scene at the front desk, hotel staff will only see this. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

What about making a scene?
Michelle:
You’ll catch more flies with honey… Don’t be belligerent, especially when it’s your own fault. The same people who can help you out if they want, can not help you out if they don’t. The minute there’s something about you they don’t like, you’ll get nothing.

What if I’d said, “I need to see a manager?”
Michelle:
The worst thing you can do is say, “I need to see a manager.” Contacting a manager should only be done for serious complaints about something that should not have happened, like a family of cockroaches in your bed.
Ted: This almost never goes well.

What about making threats? What if I promise to pull my company’s business or write a bad review on TripAdvisor?
Michelle: Responses to threats will be cultural. In Germany, for example, they are generally strictly by the book. As far as pulling your business, you’d have to have booked at least 300 room nights per year to have an impact.
Ted: You can say, “It’s unfortunate that I’m going to have to let everyone on TripAdvisor know,” but it wouldn’t likely do anything in this situation.

I still miss those 150 euros ...but of course, it COULD have been twice as bad. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.
I still miss those 150 euros …but of course, it COULD have been twice as bad. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

Did the hotel do the right thing? And what about that 300 euros reduced to 150?
Michelle:
They didn’t really do you a favor. Most European hotels have a standard Day Rate, half-price for travelers on a layover.
Ted: They definitely have the right to charge you. They’re pushing it for two hours with a full day’s rate.

Ultimately, should I have been able to get out of paying the 150 euros?
Ted:
It’s like going to the judge and saying, “I admit I ran the red light and no one was pregnant.” Some judges will give you a break; some won’t.
Michelle: At the end of the day, you did do something wrong.

Even people in stock photos can lose track of time. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.
Even people in stock photos can lose track of time. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

A synopsis of the lessons:

  1. Pack your bags before you leave the room on the day of checkout. Less worry for you, more preparation time for the hotel.
  2. Be polite.
  3. Use hotel terminology, if possible.
  4. Call the hotel. They appreciate the consideration and will have more time to make a possible concession.
  5. And when all else fails … check out on time!

Got some advice we missed? Been in a similar situation? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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