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There are few travel experiences as disappointing as arriving at your hotel with a confirmed reservation only to be told that it is sold out. The standard practice of most hotels when this happens is to pay for alternate accommodations and transportation costs, a process often referred to as “walking” a customer. Today, I want to dig a little bit deeper into what you are owed when you are walked from a hotel.
Why hotels can become oversold
How can these situations happen? I talked to a friend who has worked in the hotel industry his entire career, most recently as a VIP services coordinator and a front-desk manager for a Marriott brand property. He says that hotels usually get oversold in three different ways.
Most commonly, there’s an administrative screw-up, such as a group sales representative committing to more rooms than are actually available. This can lead to a thorny situation when the group is a professional sports team or a delegation of international diplomats. When this happens, individual customers will get walked rather than a professional athlete or a foreign official.
Other times, the hotel may have a policy of intentionally overselling rooms in order to maximize profits in the face of inevitable no-shows, just like the airlines. Finally, there are situations in which guests don’t depart on time because, for instance, bad weather prevents their departure or because they extend their stay for other reasons.
What the rules say
Unlike the relatively clear rules that the airline must follow when a flight is overbooked, there are no government regulations that cover oversold hotels. To the contrary, many cities and states will actually prohibit a hotel from immediately evicting a guest who has overstayed his or her reservation.
So legally speaking, you aren’t entitled to much if a hotel fails to honor your reservation. Hotels can and do cancel confirmed reservations whenever they want. Of course, you’re entitled to a refund of your money for a pre-paid reservation, and a hotel would have an extremely hard time defending a credit card chargeback or a small claims case asking for a refund of services not delivered.
Of the major hotel chains, Marriott is the only one that offers a publicly available written policy stating what guests are owed when a property is oversold. As you can see, the compensation policy varies by brand and by elite status, with compensation topping out at $200 and 140,000 points when Platinum and Titanium members are walked from a Ritz-Carlton or St. Regis property. Also note that to be eligible for this compensation, you’re required to have provided your member number at the time you’re making a reservation, effectively excluding third-party bookings.
For more information, read TPG Senior Contributor Richard Kerr’s post on Oversold Hotel Strategy and Room Guarantees By Elite Status.
What’s likely to happen when there are no published policies
With no laws protecting guests and without published policies at hotels other than Marriott brands, what can you expect when you’re room is not available? The hotel should offer an apology, pay for your transportation to the nearest hotel with an available room of equal or higher quality and pay for your room there. But in practice, as are evidenced by TPG readers’ actual experiences and those of TPG himself, hotels can fall somewhat short of this industry standard. If you’re treatment falls below that standard, I’d ask to speak to a manager or even engage the hotel chain on Twitter. You should also suggest being walked to a property of your choosing, so long as there’s an available room.
What you can do to reduce your chances of being walked
1. Try to book your reservations directly through the hotel. Hotels really do treat customers differently when they see them as their customers, not those of Expedia, Hotels.com or any other third party. This means that they will prioritize your reservation over others, making you less likely to be walked. You should also make sure to join the hotel’s loyalty program and add your member number to your reservation, even if you don’t have elite status. And if you do have elite status, you should be given an even higher priority in a sold-out situation.
2. Call ahead. If you suspect the hotel is sold out and you’re planning on a late arrival, you should probably call ahead. This solution isn’t foolproof, as the front desk managers at night aren’t likely to be the same as those during the day, but it can’t hurt. You could also try calling just a few hours before your late arrival to have a better chance of reaching those who will be on duty when you arrive.
3. Check in early. Sometimes when it’s late at night and there are no rooms, there’s nothing that the hotel can do. But if you have the chance to check in earlier in the day, you’re much less likely to be walked. This could mean dropping by the hotel and checking in before your event. And even if you can’t be physically present, many hotels now allow you to check in online or through your mobile app. Some, like Hilton, may even let you choose a room and receive access to it through your phone.
4. Suggest your desired alternative. If you really need to stay at that property and they don’t have a room, there could be alternatives. For example, you can suggest that an available room be cleaned while you enjoy a (complimentary) meal. I was once even offered a rollaway bed in a conference room that was equipped with a bathroom and shower. It turned out to be just fine for my single night’s stay.
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