Cristopher Elliott, The Travel Troubleshooter, October 4, 2011
I'm always on the lookout for new fees, so when Katherine Walton emailed me about her recent stay at the Chateau Timberline, a hotel in Packwood, Wash., she had my attention.
Walton needed to cancel her reservation a day before her arrival.
"An agent told me they would charge a $100 fee -- the price of one night," she says. "So even if they are able to rebook the room I will not get a refund."
Cancellation penalties like that aren't uncommon. I double-checked with the American Hotel and Lodging Association, and it confirmed that such fees are routinely charged.
"Many times, it is the first night's room charge," says Joe McInerney, the association's president. "It depends when it is canceled."
What set the Chateau Timberline apart, as far as I could tell, was that it didn't disclose the fee to Walton, at least not until she needed to cancel. Also, its terms and conditions are somewhat unusual. Read them for yourself.
"Should Guest fail to pay as agreed, or requests a cancellation, Manager may sell Guest's dates to any third party," the terms say. "If Manager is able to re-sell Guest's dates at net rates of at least equal to those charged to Guest, Manager will refund Guest's Use Fee less a Re-Booking fee as specified by Manager."
That's a little vague, according to Walton. It also leaves the door open for other unspecified fees.
"This fee is not listed anywhere online other than saying it is 'specified by manager'," she says. "This seems excessive."
I asked Chateau Timberline about Walton's cancellation. It didn't respond.
Here's what I'm worried about: While it may be a standard practice to penalize guests who cancel their rooms by charging for one night's lodging, the newer terms and conditions I'm seeing seem to lay the framework for the opportunity for new fees. In addition to charging a night, there's a possibility of a "rebooking fee" that uses the airline model -- and airline logic.
Airlines charge a $150 fee to rebook tickets. Does it cost $150 to change a ticket? No. Airlines say the fee covers the revenue opportunity they lost. Passengers say that's a money grab.
When I read the Chateau Timberline's terms, I see a little bit of that logic. They may not be charging $150 for the revenue opportunity, but they're coming closer. (I could be reading into it; the fine print is confusing.)
Already, hotels charge non-refundable rates -- and not always clearly disclosed -- so can gratuitous rebooking fees be too far away?
I'd like to think not. I prefer to believe that Chateau Timberline's terms simply veered a little from the industry standard, but that at the end of the day, it's still a hotel at heart, not a wannabe airline.
But I've been observing this industry for too long to be absolutely convinced of that. I know that any competent hotel revenue manager would love to make every room totally nonrefundable, charge customers a rebooking fee to use what's left of the credit, and perhaps a mandatory resort fee while they're at it -- and to get away with it.
All the more reason to be vigilant, to read the fine print and to know your rights the next time you reserve a hotel room.
(Christopher Elliott is the author of "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. Read more tips on his blog, elliott.org or e-mail him at [email protected]. Christopher Elliott receives a great deal of reader mail, and though he answers them as quickly as possible, your story may not be published for several months because of a backlog of cases.)