How Missing an Award Stay Cost Me $400 — Reader Mistake Story

Aug 29, 2018

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Today, I want to share a story from TPG reader Joel, who paid an unexpected penalty when his travel plans changed. Here’s what he had to say:

I’m a big Foo Fighters fan, so when I saw they were playing Wrigley Field in July, I decided to take a quick weekend trip to Chicago with my wife to see the show. We used my Southwest Companion Pass to save on our award flights, and I booked two nights at the Westin Chicago River North for 12,000 points per night. Unfortunately, a family emergency came up two days out from our trip and I had to cancel. Our flights were no problem thanks to Southwest’s no-penalty cancellation policy, so those points just went back into my Rapid Rewards account. The hotel was another story.

When I booked the hotel room online directly through SPG, the cancellation policy stated I would pay a one-night penalty if I canceled less than three days out. The same policy was included on the booking confirmation email I received, so I figured I was going to get dinged 12,000 points. As it turns out, they charged me $399 — the applicable nightly rate for the room. This seemed like an obvious error since I booked the room with points, but when I called to have it corrected, I was informed by both central reservations and the Westin front desk that this was indeed how the penalty is handled.

While I suppose this qualifies as a “reader mistake,” I can’t help but feel a bit mislead. I knew the policy as stated when I made the reservation and expected to pay a one-night penalty consistent with how I paid (using points). Personally, I feel that the cancellation policy should be more specific — I may have chosen a different hotel if I had known booking with the Westin and SPG would put $400 at risk. Now I know better, and I hope this will help other readers avoid the same situation.

Reviewing the cancellation policy should be standard procedure before you finalize any hotel booking. Policies may differ from one property to the next even within a single brand, and may also vary depending on the room and rate you select, and the date of your visit. For longer or pricier stays, it’s worth taking a screenshot of the rules expressed in your reservation to avoid disputes later, since they won’t always be included in the confirmation email.

Hotels commonly charge a cash penalty if you fail to show up for an award stay (whether you booked with points or free night certificates). Even worse, you may be charged the most expensive rack rate, so your cancellation could end up costing more than if you had paid cash to begin with. Joel is right that the wording in his reservation should have been more clear — for what it’s worth, that same Westin now appears to specify a $399 penalty for late award cancellations. I think his mistake was failing to notify the property when his plans changed; in my experience hotels are more likely to waive fees if you cancel late than if you simply don’t show up.

Depending on the nature of his family emergency, Joel might have been able to recoup the cancellation fee if he used a credit card that offers trip cancellation and interruption coverage. Several card issuers (including Chase and Citi) scaled back these benefits earlier this year, but they generally cover change and cancellation fees imposed by travel providers. Unfortunately for Joel, the benefit terms specify that you have to notify travel providers when your plans change, so his trip wouldn’t be eligible for coverage.

I appreciate this story, and I hope it can help other readers avoid making the same mistake. To thank Joel for sharing his experience (and for allowing me to post it online), I’m sending him a $200 airline 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 info@thepointsguy.com, 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. I look forward to hearing from you, and until then, I wish you a safe and mistake-free journey!

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