How Should You Handle Hotel Mistake Rates?
Though they might not be as well-publicized as mistake airline fares, mistake hotel rates can offer a great opportunity for a getaway on the cheap. However, as TPG Senior Points & Miles Contributor Nick Ewen explains, properties aren't always eager to honor these rates, so it pays to have some strategies in mind.
Using your hard-earned points and miles for award flights and hotel rooms is a great way to see the world without breaking the bank. It can also make sense to take advantage of flight sales or discounted hotel rooms when planning your trips. However, if it seems like a deal is too good to be true, you may be entering the realm of a mistake. Airline mistake fares get a lot of press, but you don't always hear much about mistake rates at hotels. Today I want to go through some strategies for handling a situation when a hotel is unwilling to honor a published and confirmed rate.
The genesis of this post began back in June when a friend and colleague notified me of a very low rate at the Vero Beach Hotel & Spa (a fantastic property that I've reviewed twice for the blog, in May 2015 and again in September 2015). Standard queen rooms were pricing at just $19 for the Wednesday night after the Fourth of July holiday weekend, and since the hotel is just a short 30-minute drive from our house, we decided to book. I even splurged on an upgrade to a one-bedroom suite for an extra $50, so our total price was $102.27 ($69 base rate plus $33.27 in taxes and resort fees). Minutes later, I had a confirmation email in my Inbox:
I wasn't confident that the reservation would be honored, given that I was certain it was a mistake rate (the website corrected it within a few hours of booking). However, a day passed, then two days, and then a week. As the arrival date approached, I hadn't received any notification that the room would be canceled, and neither did my friend (who stuck with the standard $19 room). We made plans for dinner and were excited to let our daughters enjoy a special mid-week evening of fun at a luxurious resort.
Then, on the morning of our stay, I received a new confirmation email at 11:08am, less than five hours before the hotel's posted check-in time of 4pm. It had the exact same confirmation number, but there was a detail that had changed considerably: the rate.
When you include the taxes and fees, our room had jumped over 300% in price, despite the initial reservation from nearly four weeks before.
I called to inquire about what had happened, forwarded my original confirmation e-ail and eventually spoke to the property's manager. He was very apologetic and said that the price we booked was a mistake and that $269 per night was the rate that should've been loaded from the start. However, as a gesture of goodwill, he was willing to drop $100 off the price to bring the rate down to $169 for our stay.
I expressed my frustration over the fact that it took the property until the day of arrival to notify us of this discrepancy. What if we hadn't been local? What if we had made other plans that were contingent on spending the night there? I've seen many hotels run flash sales for what could be considered "mistake rates," and again, since the reservation had stood for almost four weeks, I struggled to see why they decided to cancel so close to our arrival time.
He acknowledged my frustrations and confirmed that I had a perfectly reasonable argument but he wasn't budging on the $169. Since I wasn't interested in paying over $200 for a random mid-week night, I asked him to please cancel the room. This must've been the magic word, because all of a sudden, he said that he could honor the $69 rate (my friend's $19 rate would also stand). I'm not clear whether he was worried about occupancy numbers or afraid about losing us as customers, but regardless, I have to give him and the property credit for sticking by the rate, even when it was a mistake.
This whole situation got me thinking about mistake rates at hotels in general. What types of protections exist? What should you do when a hotel changes or cancels your reservation? And if you can't come to an agreement, do you have any recourse? Let's break these items down one at a time.
Protections for Mistake Rates
Back in 2012, the US Department of Transportation (DOT) instituted rules that clearly prohibited airlines from changing the price of a ticket after purchase, and it was frequently cited by travelers when trying to force airlines to honor mistake rates. However, after United's Danish Krone error from 2015, the DOT changed its rules to explicitly exclude mistake fares from its protection.
Unfortunately, there isn't any formal protection like this when it comes to hotels. Many programs will even provide disclaimers that absolves them of any responsibility related to mistake rates. The bottom of my confirmation for the Vero Beach Hotel & Spa included this language:
"Kimpton Hotels reserves the right to cancel reservations booked with erroneous room rates."
There are similar advisories posted on other chains' sites. For example, here's what you'll find in Hyatt's Terms and Conditions:
"The Site may contain technical inaccuracies and typographical or other errors in connection with information displayed on the Site, including without limitation rates, fees, or availability applicable to your transaction. Hyatt assumes no responsibility or liability for such errors, inaccuracies, or omissions. Hyatt shall have the right not to honor reservations or information affected by such errors, inaccuracies, or omissions. Hyatt shall have the right to make changes, corrections, cancellations, and/or improvements to such information or reservations based on such information, at any time, including after confirmation of a reservation."
"Marriott Information may contain technical inaccuracies and typographical errors, including but not limited to inaccuracies relating to pricing or availability applicable to your transaction. Neither Marriott nor Ritz-Carlton assume responsibility or liability for any such inaccuracies, errors or omissions, and shall have no obligation to honor reservations or information affected by such inaccuracies. Marriott and Ritz-Carlton reserve the right to make changes, corrections, cancellations and/or improvements to Marriott Information, and to the products and programs described in such information, at any time without notice, including after confirmation of a transaction."
As you can see, an error in the room rate is not the responsibility of the hotel or chain, and it reserves the right to cancel a reservation made thanks to such an error.
However, what's the defining line between a true error (like a room that normally costs $500 pricing at $5) vs. a hotel playing games? This is a big gray area, and I'm reminded of a View from the Wing story from last year when a hotel mistakenly loaded a "regular" rate during graduation weekend for the nearby university. I find it outright disturbing that a hotel can simply say, "You know what? We can actually sell your room for more money, so we're going to cancel your room and claim it's a "mistake."
What if a hotel cancels or changes your reservation?
The first thing you should do when you're notified that a hotel has canceled or otherwise modified your reservation (whether it was a clear mistake rate or not) is to call the individual property. Inquire about the change/cancellation and escalate to a manager if need be. Keep it even-handed and professional. The more you lose your cool, the less likely the hotel is to help resolve your issue.
You should also have some possible resolutions in mind before you call. Obviously the best-case scenario would be for the hotel to honor the original reservation, but if that doesn't happen, consider asking for the following:
- Could you honor the rate on another date?
- Could you provide some added perks (free breakfast, upgrade, etc.) in exchange for the higher rate?
- Could we have a voucher or credit to use on a future stay?
If the manager isn't able to help, hang up and reach out to the corporate office of the chain involved. Again, keep your cool and calmly explain the situation. An individual property may not be willing to budge, but pressure from the loyalty program may be enough. Be sure to highlight any loyalty you've shown to that particular chain over the years. If it's your first stay, you may not get the same treatment as someone who's held elite status for several years.
I'd also recommend searching for alternative accommodations that would work for your schedule and price range. It's essential to have a back-up plan if you can't work anything out with the original hotel, but be sure to pay close attention to the cancellation policy so as not to end up being on the hook for two reservations.
If all else fails, consider filing a complaint with the Better Business Bureau. You can start the process at this page, and it's very straightforward. The business will be asked to respond within 14 days, and complaints are typically closed within 30 business days. While that may not be enough time to fix your issue, it's important to keep the hotel honest. Keep in mind that even threatening to file a complaint could resolve the issue.
Do you have any recourse?
The situation gets a bit more complicated if the cancellation results in significant inconvenience or the loss of out-of-pocket expenses. If you make a hotel reservation and then plan other parts of a trip that rely on that reservation, you can be in a tough spot if the hotel unexpectedly cancels your room. Other properties may be sold out, or you may be left with more expensive or less convenient options. If any of this is the case, you can always sue the property in small claims court.
Let me start by saying that I am not a lawyer, but I have taken several business law classes as part of my undergraduate and graduate degree programs and have a basic understanding of contract law. A contract is typically formed when two parties agree to do (or not do) something. Generally speaking, this includes an offer from one party, an acceptance by the other party and consideration (one party promising to do something in exchange for something from the other party). When you book a room at a hotel, the property is making an offer by publishing room rates online, and you then accept it by confirming the reservation. You are agreeing to pay the published rate in exchange for the stated accommodations (consideration).
Of course, there are many additional factors here, as contract law (like all other aspects of the law) is far from simple. Nevertheless, if a hotel tries to cancel a reasonable reservation that inflicts monetary damages upon you, it could be worth pursuing legal action.
A few final suggestions to help handle these situations (or avoid them entirely):
- Don't immediately book nonrefundable travel after booking a mistake rate. — If you find an obvious mistake rate at a hotel and reserve a room, don't immediately book flights, tours or other arrangements that can't be canceled. I'd suggest waiting at least a week, though if your stay is several months away, give it even more time for the hotel to correct it.
- Print or save your confirmations. — I always save my confirmation emails in folders that are easily accessible on my mobile devices, and I'll also print them as PDFs and add them to Dropbox. I've read some horror stories of folks arriving to check-in only to be told that there's no record of their reservations. Being able to show a confirmation email can go a long way toward resolving that issue.
- Stay professional. — There's no shortage of YouTube videos showing people absolutely losing it when interacting with employees of travel providers, but I promise that you are much more likely to get a satisfactory resolution if you stay calm and try to work things out professionally. If you get nasty, you may slam the door shut for getting what you want.
- Hope for the best but prepare for the worst. — It's great when things work out in your favor, but some hotels won't be willing to budge. In my case above, canceling the room wasn't a huge deal, since we were local and hadn't made significant plans that revolved around it. If you do find yourself in a similar situation, consider what you'd do if the hotel doesn't honor the rate/reservation. You may not be able to book a straight-up back-up room (if the cancellation policies are strict), but you should at least think about your options so you have a Plan B in mind.
If you're reading this post, chances are you enjoy maximizing your travel experiences, be it using points and miles for free flights and hotel stays or taking advantage of mistake fares and deals to travel cheaply. Unfortunately hotels and and airlines don't always share this goal, and discounted hotel rooms are especially susceptible to shenanigans on the part of the property. Hopefully this post has given you some insight into what you can do to prevent against this and how to handle it if it does happen to you.
What are your experiences with hotels not honoring published and confirmed rates?