The e-mail from the Hotel Solamar in San Diego came as a "complete shock" to Barb Staigerwald on a recent Saturday morning. Her reservations for a convention in July had suddenly been canceled without explanation.
Try as hard as she may, she couldn't get her room back.
"I got on the phone right away," she says. "The first person, a reservation agent, had no idea why it was cancelled or what happened.
She told me I'd have to wait until Monday to speak to an in-house agent at the hotel. I tried to explain that this couldn't wait and that if I need a new hotel, I need to get on this ASAP, since most hotels for that week are booked up. I then asked for a manager who pretty much told me the same thing. "
Can hotel just cancel a reservation and leave you without a room? In a word, yes.
California's lodging laws, which go into great detail about the rights of an innkeeper, don't specifically address situations like Staigerwald's. In other words, the Solamar could cancel her room and she's outta luck, as far as the Golden State's hotel laws are concerned.
Other states have similarly vague laws, which allow hotels to cancel your reservations before you check in and leave you homeless.
I asked the Solamar what happened.
Vanessa Bortnick, a hotel spokeswoman, said the hotel didn't call the whole thing off, at least not intentionally. "It looks like the cancellation happened through the online booking engine, but we are working on digging up more details," she told me. "We are so sorry that we weren't able to resolve it with Ms. Staigerwald."
I worked with her over the weekend, and thanks to a little help from one of its executives, the reservation was reinstated by Sunday morning. But it doesn't always end that way.
Steve Preston remembers having a reservation at a hotel in Florence, S.C., canceled shortly before his scheduled arrival. The reason? The property had been "re-flagged" (an industry term for switching brands) and went from being a Hampton to a Baymont. The owners were the same.
"I was given one week's notice that my reservation was canceled," he remembers. "I was told, 'tough luck'."
Preston complained to Hilton, which owns the Hampton brand, and it offered him a room at another property.
Joe Grella had a reservation at an elegant seaside hotel in St. Tropez, France, but when he arrived, the doors were locked.
"Fortunately, I had the phone number of the owner," he recalls. "When he responded, he indicated that he had sent me an e-mail a week prior that they needed to cancel the reservation because the hotel was being sold."
Grella says the owner found a replacement room at a nearby chateau. "The place was beautiful," he says. "However, we had prepared our luggage for a stay on the sea, in a beautiful city, and not far from civilization."
The question is, should this apparent gap in lodging law be addressed?
Some might say a reservation is a form of contract, and that the property breaches the contract when it arbitrarily cancels a reservation. But as a practical matter, who has the time and resources to file a lawsuit against a hotel for not honoring a reservation?
Hotels know this. They know they can get away with it.
Interestingly, the federal government just increased the required compensation for passengers who are denied boarding when their flights are overbooked. The new rule doubles the amount of money passengers are eligible to be compensated for in the event they are involuntarily bumped from an oversold flight.
Wouldn't it be reasonable for hotels to be required to do something similar?
Christopher Elliott is the author of the upcoming book "Scammed: How to Save Your Money and Find Better Service in a World of Schemes, Swindles, and Shady Deals" (Wiley). He's also the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the co-founder of the Consumer Travel Alliance, a nonprofit organization that advocates for travelers. You can read more travel tips on his blog, elliott.org. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.