When a blizzard bears in on St. Cloud, Minn., Bonnie Polk asks a manager at the Ramada if she can cancel her reservation. Yes, she's told. But a few days later, her credit card is billed and the hotel refuses to give her a refund. Is she out of luck?
Q: I'm not sure how to resolve a hotel problem, and I hope you can help me. My daughter and I had reservations at the Ramada St. Cloud last spring. We had a blizzard and no unnecessary travel was advised. The roads were almost impassable.
We decided to not attempt the drive. I contacted the hotel twice that day to cancel. I spoke with the general manager, and she told me that she could not actually enter a cancellation, but that she would note that I had called to cancel. A weather-related cancellation would "not be a problem," she told me.
But a few days later, a charge was posted to my credit card account. I tried working directly with the hotel and was treated very rudely. I eventually received a letter from Ramada saying that I had not canceled my reservation, and that my card had been charged.
I disputed the charge with my credit card company, but it sided with the hotel. Any suggestions? -- Bonnie Polk, Minneapolis
A: Ramada should have canceled your reservation and never charged your credit card, as promised.
Why didn't it? The standard Ramada refund policy says you have to notify the hotel by 6 p.m. the night before you arrive, or your card will be charged for one night's stay. There's no mention of an exception for weather, so it would be up to the hotel to waive its policy when you can't check in because of a storm.
Phoning the hotel was a good idea, but I would have started with a call to Ramada's main reservation number. They might have referred you back to the St. Cloud location, but not before making a notation on your record that you were trying to cancel your reservation. That might have been helpful later, when Ramada charged your credit card for a room you didn't use.
When a manager told you that your reservation couldn't be canceled in the system, you should have politely asked what you could do to get a cancellation number. Under ideal circumstances, the hotel would send you a cancellation number in writing -- either by email or regular mail. That number would have allowed you to win your credit-card dispute, hands down.
If Ramada's reservation system was out of order (which can happen during a blizzard) then you might have asked the manager to send you an email assuring you that your reservation had been canceled and that you won't be charged. Again, that's probably enough to make any card dispute go in your favor.
At the very least, ask for the name, extension and email address of the managers who authorized the cancellation. Note the time of your conversation, too. When the hotel began sending you rude letters, you could have replied with information from those notes. This isn't as effective as having a cancellation number, but it's better than nothing.
Ramada should have allowed you to cancel your reservation without any penalties, but I can almost understand why it didn't. When a storm is bearing in on your hotel and all of your guests are canceling, it's not always easy to keep track of who you talked to and what you said.
Still, a simple phone call to the manager should have been enough to clear up this misunderstanding. Too bad it wasn't.
I contacted Ramada on your behalf, and it refunded the charge for your hotel room.
Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the host of "What You Get For The Money: Vacations" on the Fine Living Network. E-mail him at email@example.com.
(c) 2009 Christopher Elliott. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.