I forgot about my hotel’s 30-day cancellation policy. Can you help?

Jan Peterson booked a weekend at the Bide-A-Wee Inn & Cottages in Pacific Grove, Calif. earlier this year. Then her father-in-law’s condition deteriorated, forcing her to cancel her trip. And then, more bad news: The hotel imposed a 30-day cancellation period because of a special event in town.

Her $1,763 was gone.

Peterson asked for help retrieving the money. My advocacy team jumped into action, but as you can probably tell from the story title, the inn wouldn’t let her out of her contract.

Her story offers an important reminder for the rest of us who may make a hotel reservation in the future — always, always read the terms. Even if you think you know them. Especially if you think you know them.

Peterson’s reservations seemed pretty standard, at first. She booked the room and had every intention of checking in. Then her father’s condition worsened.

“I called the hotel to request a cancellation, since my father-in-law had deteriorated to the point that we can’t leave at this point in time,” she says. “I was told by the manager that they already charged my credit card and there were no cancellations.”

No cancellations? But it was still weeks before her scheduled arrival. Why does the hotel get to keep her money?

The reason: It was Monterey Classic Car Week and Concours d’Elegance, a special event that attracts thousands of car aficionados. Hotels impose special cancellation terms during periods of high demand. Peterson wasn’t even aware of the event. As a matter of fact, she wasn’t even aware of the 30-day cancellation policy.

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“Because the reservation was made back in February, I honestly did not pay attention to the cancellation policy, nor do I even remember getting the confirmation email,” she says. “When I talked to the manager, he was very rude and said it didn’t matter what the reason was we could not come for the weekend — that I should’ve read the email and made the changes prior to that.”

The manager was both right and wrong, of course.

He was right in the sense that she should have taken the time to review the terms. That’s your responsibility as a guest. But it was wrong in being so abrupt and unfriendly in the delivery. That concerned my advocacy team and that, combined with the medical reason for being unable to travel, made them want to help.

I know what you’re thinking. Would insurance have made a difference? Maybe, maybe not. Her father-in-law is 95 and in all likelihood, the condition he has would have been declared “preexisting” by an insurance company. Yes, a cancel-for-any reason policy would have helped, but for a weekend in Monterey, that kind of insurance is probably overkill.

“Is it legal for them to charge my credit card based on the one email that they said they sent?” she asked. “I asked for a copy and they did forward it and it does state a 30-day cancellation.”

Yes, unfortunately it is. But our team didn’t leave this one alone. We reached out to the property on Peterson’s behalf. Although it refused to refund her room, it allowed her to transfer the reservation to a friend, which she’s done.

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But in sharing her story, Peterson has also helped countless other consumers who might have a similar problem. The lesson is simple, and it can’t be stated often enough: Always read the fine print. You never know what kind of “gotcha” clauses a hotel might throw in there. If you know about them, you can plan accordingly — or plan to avoid the hotel entirely.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at chris@elliott.org. Read more of Christopher's articles here.

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