A Very Expensive “Free” Hotel Night — Reader Mistake Story

Jun 1, 2017

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One of the things I love most about being The Points Guy is getting to hear stories from readers about all the positive ways award travel has affected their lives. That being said, while I love hearing about your successes, I think there’s also a lot we can learn by sharing our mistakes, and I’m calling on readers to send in your most egregious and woeful travel failures.

From time to time I’ll pick one that catches my eye and post it for everybody to enjoy (and commiserate with). If you’re interested, email your story to info@thepointsguy.com, and put “Reader Mistake Story” in the subject line. Include details of exactly how things went wrong, and (where applicable) how you made them right. Please offer any wisdom you gained from the experience, and explain what precautions the rest of us can take to avoid the same pitfalls. If we publish your story, I’ll send you a gift to help jump-start your next adventure (or make up for any blunders from the last one).

Today, I want to share a story from TPG reader Dawn, whose failed hotel booking almost cost her a huge sum. Here’s what she had to say:

Dawn booked with a free night certificate, but almost had to pay full price. Image courtesy of Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay.

I signed up for the Ritz-Carlton Rewards card when the bonus was three free nights (instead of the two currently offered), and decided to redeem them at two different properties in California. I booked a night in June at one property, and two nights in July at another, using some IHG free nights and Hilton Points to round out our coastal trip.

I later decided to stay with IHG in June, freeing up that third night for my husband and I to use during our Ritz-Carlton stay in July. In late April I canceled the June stay online, booked the final July night using the refunded certificate, and received an email confirmation. The next morning I logged into my Ritz account to check our dates (so my husband could make golf plans using his expiring Citi Prestige benefit), and I was shocked to see that instead of a date in July, our reservation indicated we had been booked for the previous night!

I immediately called Marriott, and told them I was sure I had booked in July, and that I had received an email confirmation. The representative I spoke with said there was nothing he could do, since the stay was “in progress,” and suggested I call the hotel front desk. After a few nervous hours (it was only 5 am on the West Coast at the time), I was eventually able to reach a manager there.

He asked if I had checked my credit card charges, which I had not. I was more worried about losing the free night certificate than being charged a $40 resort fee, but he explained that since I had been a “no-show” the night before, the hotel had automatically charged me the rack rate of $1,699! Of course, my certificate had also been redeemed — panic began to set in.

Thankfully, after some time away from the phone, the manager was able to cancel out the no-show completely, refund my credit card, and recoup my free night certificate! He said Marriott understands that “mistakes happen,” and he was happy to accommodate me, as they wished to earn my future business. I was a really happy camper!

So what happened? It appears that I somehow canceled my July booking shortly after making it, and then re-booked it without realizing that the date on the Ritz-Carlton website had reset to the present day. Sure enough, I received an emailed cancellation and a new emailed confirmation (for that day), but I didn’t see them until it was too late.

Lessons learned — number one, be careful when booking online. Websites can be confusing, difficult to navigate and glitchy. Number two, read your emails! And number three, know that not showing up for a free hotel night might cost you much more than just the certificate you used to book it.

Thanks to the Ritz-Carlton staff and Marriott Rewards for their excellent customer service. And thanks to TPG for all of the info you provide, including the mistake stories — because we can all learn from our mistakes!

Airlines get a lot of flack for their change and cancellation fees, but hotel policies can be even more punitive. Most major hotels allow you to cancel with no penalty up to a certain point (typically a few days to a few weeks before your scheduled arrival). Beyond that date, however, you can expect to forfeit some (or all) of the cost of your stay.

The treatment is especially severe if you fail to show up for an award stay. In that case, you may be charged the rack rate (the full retail price), which will typically be much more than what you would have spent by paying in cash to begin with. In addition to the lessons Dawn enumerated above, I urge you to read cancellation policies carefully before making reservations, and don’t forget to cancel if your plans change.

After the many incidents of poor customer service we’ve reported lately, it’s encouraging to see an example of the opposite. Ritz-Carlton could have been less forgiving, and Dawn would likely have been out a lot of money with little recourse. Fortunately, the hotel staff took the long view, and appears to have won her loyalty as a result.

Make sure to cancel your reservation if you decide to just stay home. Photo courtesy of Hero Images via Getty Images.

I appreciate this story, and I hope it can help other readers avoid making the same mistake. To thank Dawn for sharing her experience (and for allowing me to post it online), I’m sending her a $200 Visa gift card to enjoy on her travels.

I’d like to do the same for you! If you’ve ever arrived at the airport without ID, booked a hotel room in the wrong city, missed out on a credit card sign-up bonus or made another memorable travel or rewards mistake, I want to hear about it. Please indulge me and the whole TPG team by sending us your own stories (see instructions above). I look forward to hearing from you, and until then, I wish you a safe and mistake-free journey!

Featured image courtesy of Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay.

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