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Despite reservations, sometimes travelers aren't given a room

Hotels often overbook. The manager may help find accommodations, but feel free to lodge a complaint after the trip.

September 28, 2003|Rosemary McClure | Times Staff Writer

IT'S a traveler's nightmare. You arrive at a destination and find that the room you paid for is unavailable. The hotel or condo is overbooked, and you're the person left standing when the music stops.

No one keeps records on how frequently it happens. Student travelers seem to face the problem regularly. Sometimes they end up sleeping on a beach or in a hotel lobby when their package deals fizzle at the last minute.

In July, it happened to half a dozen families in Florida who paid for vacation rentals near Disney World and found other families in the homes they expected to occupy. One customer was so irate that he called the sheriff.

I have an idea how he felt. I was the person left standing in August when I tried to check into the Outrigger Lae Nani Resort in Kapaa, Kauai. The manager said I was mistaken, that there was no such reservation and that the unit wasn't available. But I had checked before I arrived and was told everything was OK. "I never told you that," she said.

What to do? It was the height of the summer season. Accommodations had been booked for months.

I called the travel agency that arranged the car-condo package.

"Sorry it happened, but the island is overbooked," said travel agent Anne Devane of Paradise Unlimited of Sherman Oaks, which had booked the package. "Hotels are oversold, just like airlines are oversold.

"The money will be reimbursed to your credit card." And it was.

When guests can't be accommodated, a hotel usually finds them other lodging that is comparable or better, travel experts say. In this case, there was no such offer. And finding a room on my own didn't seem likely. Luckily, I had friends staying on Kauai who offered to make room for me. When I returned to Los Angeles, I made some phone calls to the businesses involved. I had been traveling anonymously, as Times travel staff members always do, and it was time to ask questions as a journalist. I hoped the answers would help readers avoid the problem I encountered. There was lots of finger-pointing but no clear-cut answer as to why it happened. Representatives of the travel agency, the packager (All About Hawaii) and Outrigger Corp. all apologized profusely after I explained the situation and said I was from The Times.

They attributed the problem to a breakdown in the booking process.

It's a complicated procedure: The Paradise Unlimited agent received the request and notified All About Hawaii, the packager. All About Hawaii requested a unit from Outrigger. Outrigger said it never confirmed the room was available. All About Hawaii said it did.

Seven weeks before my departure for Kauai, I received a fax from the travel agency confirming the reservation. The unit would be available. When I arrived Aug. 4, I found out differently.

"Should overbooking occur? No, never," said Robert J. Kwortnik, an assistant professor of the School of Hotel Administration at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. "But it's difficult for resorts and hotels to keep up with all the multiple channels of distribution that are now available. Not only are they dealing with their own reservation systems and with travel agents worldwide, they're dealing with an increasing number of Internet packagers."

Budget travel specialist Arthur Frommer said overbooking is a necessary evil in the travel industry. "Everyone -- airlines, cruise companies, hotels -- does it to keep costs low," he said. "Without it, we'd all have to pay more."

Frommer's advice: "If you travel, stay flexible."

Perry Sorenson, chief operating officer of Outrigger, denied that overbooking is a company policy. "If it's a guaranteed reservation, our policy is to honor it."

In times of high occupancy, he said, flaws in the reservations system occasionally occur. "We have a lot of people involved. If a reservation goes through several hands, there are sometimes errors. In this case, both of us (All About Hawaii and Outrigger) dropped the ball."

What should a traveler do when it happens?

Talk to management, said Rick Schoen, senior manager of the consumer affairs department at the American Society of Travel Agents, ASTA, based in Alexandria, Va.

"Most of the time, the hotel will help you find other accommodations," Schoen said. "Like any consumer issue, try to resolve it at the time. If the front desk won't help you, escalate it. Ask to talk to the manager. If you can't, you'll have to contact the executive offices when you get home." (ASTA keeps tallies on complaints against its members; for information, call [703] 739-2782,

One of my mistakes was accepting the manager's no. Instead of asking for help in finding other accommodations, I called the travel agent, who contacted the packager. I received apologies but no help.

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