Ilene Coffey's room at an Orlando hotel comes with an unexpected surprise: a $50 fee for a "short stay." When she protests, her hotel and online travel agency tell her she must pay. What's worse, she can't back out -- if she does, her credit card will be charged for the stay. Is there a way out of this mess?
Q: I recently found a surprise fee on my hotel bill, and I'm having absolutely no success in getting it removed. Maybe you can help me.
I booked a room at the Blue Heron Beach Resort in Orlando through Orbitz. When I checked in, I was told there would be a $50 surcharge because of my short stay.
I showed the hotel my confirmation, which only said I would have to pay a $5-a-day resort fee. That didn't work. I phoned Orbitz, and it insisted the fee had been revealed on its site -- all I needed to do was "right-click several times."
So I said fine, just cancel the reservation. But it was too late -- an Orbitz representative said I would be charged for the rooms even if I didn't stay at the Blue Heron. I wrote to Orbitz after I got back home, but have heard nothing. Is there anything you can do? -- Ilene Coffey, Lake Worth, Fla.
A: How can any hotel expect you to pay a fee that it doesn't tell you about? And by "tell you" I mean that it shows the fee clearly through every booking channel, including an online travel agency like Orbitz.
Right click several times? Come on. I looked at the confirmation Orbitz sent you, and there's no sign of a $50 fee. Let me be clear about this: This isn't to say the Blue Heron or Orbitz shouldn't be charging you an extra $50. If they told you about the charge, and you agreed to it, they're well within their rights to ask you to pay.
I just don't think it's right to surprise you with an additional fee -- and then to tell you you'll be charged for the room if you back out.
So what was the fee for? It hardly matters. Hotels add surcharges for early and late checkout, for extra guests or for resort amenities. These fees are tacked on to your base room rate, giving you the impression that your room is cheaper than it actually is. I wouldn't be surprised if they began charging you extra for the bed at some point. But I digress.
When you run into a problem like this, don't take the first "no" for an answer. Don't take the second "no," either. You should have asked for a manager when you were informed about the $50 fee, and if that didn't work, you should have escalated your complaint to Orbitz and requested a manager.
Your greatest weapon may have been your presence in the lobby of the Blue Heron. A guest who refuses to leave, and is speaking on a cell phone about what she feels is a broken promise made by the property, is every hotel's worst nightmare. Believe me, a hotel is extremely conscious of a lobby squatter and it won't take long before it finds a way to make that person happy.
But you fell into a familiar trap during the grievance process. You decided to wait until you returned to try to resolve this, and travel companies are exceptionally skilled at deflecting or ignoring those kinds of complaints.
I contacted Orbitz on your behalf, and it refunded your mysterious $50 fee.
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) 2008 Christopher Elliott Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.