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Changed Your Plans? That Cancellation May Cost You

Hotels: Reservations policies vary widely and can change with occupancy rates, which means customers may end up paying for a room they didn't use.


To many people, making and breaking a hotel reservation seems like a simple thing. You give a credit card number to hold the room for late arrival. You get a confirmation number. To get all your money back, you know you should cancel by . . .

Well, in many hotels, by 6 p.m. on the day of your scheduled arrival. In others, by 4 p.m. In still others, a full day ahead. Or two full days ahead. Or more, depending on the hotel, the locale and the season.

As a recent batch of communiques from the battlefield to this office suggests, travelers and their hotels frequently fail to understand each other when it comes to reservations, even when the travelers are seasoned at this sort of thing. When those misunderstandings happen, travelers often end up losing money.

The California Hotel and Motel Assn. surveyed its members and concluded last month that the most common cancellation deadline, formerly 6 p.m. on arrival day, has moved up to 4 p.m., thus giving hoteliers a little more warning and travelers a little less flexibility.

But the association's executive vice president, Jim Abrams, acknowledges that "there is no real uniformity in the industry" about cancellation deadlines. In San Francisco, for instance, red-hot demand for hotel rooms had led most hotels to require 72-hour advance notice on cancellations. And many island and mountain resort properties, unlikely to compensate for cancellations with walk-in business, have set deadlines two weeks ahead of arrival.

Clearly, it's vital to understand a hotel's policy in advance, and never assume that one hotel follows the same policy as others, even if it shares a brand name. But sometimes even those precautions aren't enough, and a little feistiness is in order. Consider these tales from the front.

* Jerry Gold, a 64-year-old Garden Grove resident, went with his wife to Paris in August and found that their room in a modest two-star hotel near the Seine was rather small. Also, lights from boats on the river cast a distracting glow into the room, and "the bathroom had been painted recently, but only in parts, and the maid had cleaned recently, but only in parts." Gold resolved to check out early and move to another hotel.

But when he told the manager of this, the manager reminded him that the hotel's stated policy was to add one day's charges in cases of early checkout. Thus, if a guest reserved a room for five nights but checked out after one, the hotel would charge him or her for two nights. To Gold's dismay, the manager was right: The hotel's reservation confirmation letter had warned of that policy, so he accepted the penalty. But the adventure wasn't over yet. At checkout, says Gold, a hotel clerk tried to tack another $100 onto the bill for the early departure. Gold protested, and the charge was removed.

* A psychologist from Orange, Fredrick L. McGuire, journeyed to England this past summer with his wife. In advance of arrival, McGuire said, they had reserved two nights at a hotel in Manchester. But they decided to change plans and canceled the reservation, assuming that since they had given more than four days' notice, there would be no charge.

On return to California, however, the McGuires' Visa bill showed they'd been charged for two nights at the hotel. This angered the McGuires, who recalled that their confirmation letter from the hotel's management never mentioned its cancellation policy. When the hotel management declined to split the difference in this dispute--that is, accept payment for one night rather than two--the McGuires got even angrier. Now they're protesting this charge through their credit card company. No word on the resolution so far.

* Janet Kessler of Ventura had friends coming to visit in July from out of town. Having heard of discounted rates at a local chain hotel, she called on June 21 and made a reservation for three nights. She also remembers giving her credit card number and being informed that the cancellation deadline was 6 p.m. on the night before arrival.

But when her friends' plans changed and Kessler needed to reduce the reservation from three nights to two, she says a hotel representative told her that the discounted rates were nonrefundable. Via her credit card, she would be charged for all three nights.

Kessler said this policy wasn't mentioned in the hotel's newspaper ad, nor in her first conversation with the reservations clerk. And she wondered why, if a reservation was nonrefundable, a hotel clerk would give her a 6 p.m. "cancellation deadline."

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