The deadly storms that left large swaths of the East Coast without power just before the Fourth of July holiday provided an uncomfortable lesson to hotel guests like Ken White: Always call to confirm your reservation, especially when the place you’re visiting is reeling from a natural disaster.
White lives in Charlottesville, Va., an area that was hit hard by the hurricane-force winds. Many residents were struggling to stay cool in record-breaking heat, and checking into an air-conditioned hotel nearby was a popular solution.
Maybe a little too popular.
“I made reservations at the Hilton Garden Inn for Sunday and Monday night,” White said. “My credit card was charged, and I was given a confirmation number by Expedia.”
But when he tried to pick up his room key Sunday, a hotel representative said that White didn’t have a reservation and turned him away. The Hilton, like all the other hotels in the area, was fully booked.
An Expedia spokeswoman said that the online travel agency wouldn’t comment on White’s case unless I provided a confirmation number. I contacted Hilton for a statement, and it, too, refused to say anything at the corporate level, deferring instead to the hotel White had tried to stay in, which it said is a franchise property.
Finally, I reached Eric Pfister, the general manager at the Hilton Garden Inn in Charlottesville. He confirmed the details of White’s story. Pfister said that on June 30, in the wake of the massive thunderstorms, his 124-room hotel quickly sold out.
The Hilton Garden Inn connects to Expedia through an electronic reservations system, and it also receives faxes from the online travel agency as a backup. Hilton’s system was showing the property as fully booked for Sunday and Monday night, but for some reason, Expedia didn’t get the message.
It continued to confirm reservations and send backup faxes, which were piling up fast.
“It was a bad situation,” Pfister said.
Hilton tried to contact Expedia, asking it to stop accepting new reservations. Eventually it did, but the hotel had to turn away nine guests the next day, including White.
It’s unclear whether this was an isolated problem or whether other Hilton properties working with Expedia were affected by the reservations system glitch.
With this new information from Hilton, I again asked Expedia whether it could help me understand how these surplus reservations happened. It declined to comment.
When a hotel can’t accommodate a guest because it’s overbooked, the standard industry practice is to send that person to a comparable hotel and to pay for the first night’s reservation. That would have happened to White and the other displaced customers, except that there were no available rooms in the region.
In such cases, a hotel’s options are limited, says Stephen Barth, a professor of hospitality law at the University of Houston and founder of the website HospitalityLawyer.com.
A property can still accommodate a guest by setting up a rollaway bed in the lobby, which sometimes happens during a natural disaster. It can also rent rooms in eight-hour shifts, giving guests a chance to freshen up, or it can allow them to use the showers at the pool.
The best way to avoid being turned away, Barth said, is to take a couple of preventive measures. White could have sidestepped the situation by booking directly through the Hilton website or by calling its reservations number. (White’s confirmation contained an Expedia confirmation, but didn’t have a corresponding confirmation from Hilton, Pfister said.)
Also, Barth said, “always contact the hotel and confirm the reservation.” That’s particularly important when you’re booking through a third party, such as an online travel agency.
Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. He’s also the author of “Scammed: How to Save Your Money and Find Better Service in a World of Schemes, Swindles, and Shady Deals.” You can read more travel tips on his blog, www.elliott.org or email him at email@example.com.
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