The hotel canceled my free night — reader mistake story
Today, I want to share a story from TPG reader Moe, who caught an unlucky break after bending the rules for redeeming a free night certificate:
I booked a week-long cruise over Thanksgiving out of San Juan, Puerto Rico, and thought I would fly in a day early to enjoy the city a bit. I decided to use my IHG free night to stay at the Intercontinental San Juan, which seemed pretty nice and relaxing. I thought I was being really clever booking this at the start of March in 2019, since my free night was going to expire at the end of that month. Booking then let me get some use out of it.
Seven months later now I get a call from the hotel saying their renovations are taking longer than expected and they had to cancel my reservation. They told me they refunded my free night, but when I looked in my account, I saw only an expired free night. I pleaded with IHG's help line, but they insisted that even though they canceled the booking, and even though I made the reservation seven months prior when the free night was still valid, it had since expired and I would get nothing back. Worse yet, since my trip was only about six weeks away, all the other hotels had gone up in price.
I've essentially paid for the reservation, since I'm not getting back the free night even though I don't get to stay there. I feel cheated by IHG, but at the same time I feel guilty for trying to use my free night certificate for a booking scheduled after the expiration date.
For more TPG news delivered each morning to your inbox, sign up for our daily newsletter.
IHG's official policy has long been that you have to book and complete free night stays before your certificate expires. However, the unofficial policy (for free nights issued before May of 2018) was that you could book stays beyond the expiration date so long as you booked by the expiration date. That loophole created more redemption opportunities, but also added risk — if something happened to your reservation after your certificate expired, you'd be unlikely to recoup any of its value. Many rewards function differently in practice than they're supposed to on paper (like some credit card bonus categories and airline fee credits), but beware that you have little recourse if you use them contrary to the program rules and something goes wrong, even if such use is generally viable.
To me, Moe's story seems as much like a customer service failure by IHG as a mistake on his part, but there are steps he could have taken (and maybe still could take) to ameliorate the situation. One is to simply not wait until the last minute to redeem his free night. I often see award travelers suffer from analysis paralysis when trying to use rewards; they pass up good value in the pursuit of maximum value, and end up getting poor value (or none at all) because they wait too long. I don't advocate redeeming a free night certificate right away just because you can, but be realistic about how many opportunities you'll have and how much those opportunities will be worth. If you don't have concrete plans that offer a good return, lean toward redeeming rather than saving for later.
Moe also would have benefited from making a backup plan, since hotels commonly delay opening dates or fall behind schedule in renovations. If your hotel is under construction (or will be before your stay), consider booking another room elsewhere with a flexible cancellation policy in case your first reservation falls through. Finally, I recommend trying to resolve service issues directly with your hotel before using other channels. The InterContinental San Juan bears some responsibility for Moe's predicament, and hotel staff may be more receptive to his complaint than general customer service agents. While hotel management probably couldn't reinstate his free night award, they could issue points or find another solution (like booking him at the Holiday Inn Express nearby). That approach isn't guaranteed, but it's worth a shot.
Related: Do I lose my annual free night certificate if I cancel my credit card?
I appreciate this story, and I hope it can help other readers avoid making the same mistake. In appreciation for sharing this experience (and for allowing us to post it online), I’m sending Moe a gift card to enjoy on future travels, and I'd like to do the same for you. Please email your own travel mistake stories to firstname.lastname@example.org, and put "Reader Mistake Story" in the subject line. Tell us how things went wrong, and (where applicable) how you made them right. Offer any wisdom you gained from the experience, and explain what the rest of us can do to avoid the same pitfalls.
Feel free to also submit your best travel success stories. If your story is published in either case, I’ll send you a gift to jump-start your next adventure. Due to the volume of submissions, we can't respond to each story individually, but we'll be in touch if yours is selected. I look forward to hearing from you, and until then, I wish you a safe and mistake-free journey!