Kristin Budden's hotel promises her a refund for her nonrefundable hotel room after a hurricane strikes. But months later, there's no sign of the money and the hotel has gone into radio silence. Should she kiss the money goodbye?
Q: I think that you may be my only hope! My father and I were supposed to meet in San Antonio before a conference. Lucky for us, the weekend that we were to be in San Antonio was the same weekend Hurricane Ike plowed through Texas. After experiencing Gustav just two weeks prior in Baton Rouge, I was not very keen on going for round two. My flight was canceled, anyway.
We had made reservations at the Holiday Inn on the Riverwalk for the weekend. The rate was pre-paid and nonrefundable, which at the time of booking was fine. However, when we saw where the hurricane was headed, we called to cancel our reservations independently.
After some discussion about the storm, the hotel told us both independently that, due to the extreme circumstances, we would receive refunds. I have an e-mail from the hotel regarding my "refund."
Despite numerous e-mails to the hotel over many months, we've received nothing. Any assistance that you can offer me would be greatly appreciated. -- Kristin Budden, Baton Rouge, La.
A: I think Holiday Inn owes you a refund. Not because of the hurricane, or because it was the right thing to do (although both are true) but because a hotel representative promised one in writing.
If you had disputed the hotel charge on your credit card -- which would have been one of your options -- then the e-mail from your hotel is almost like money in the bank. During a dispute, a hotel may counter that by citing its nonrefundability policy, but from your credit card's perspective, a written statement from the property that it agrees to override its rule is compelling evidence in your favor.
Many resorts offer hurricane guarantees that give guests a no-questions-asked refund when a storm is on the way. Holiday Inn wasn't one of those hotels as far as I can tell, but the commonly accepted practice in the travel industry is to not hold a customer accountable for a trip that can't be taken because of circumstances beyond his or her control.
(Remember, we let travel companies off the hook when they can't operate a plane because of bad weather or a hotel shuts down during a flood -- it's only fair that they should do the same thing for us.)
It looks as if you limited your correspondence to the hotel. In a situation like this, it's useful to begin with a brief, polite e-mail to the corporate guest-relations section on its Web site. Many hotels pass these complaints along to the hotel and may fine it if the grievances aren't resolved quickly. However, dealing with the hotel directly puts it under no such pressure and it may feel as if it can ignore your repeated requests.
Next time you reserve a room during hurricane season, consider one that's refundable. And if not, then at least consider taking out a travel insurance policy that would cover you if a hurricane hit your hotel.
I contacted Holiday Inn on your behalf and it promised you a full refund.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
(c) 2009 Christopher Elliott. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.