No paper trail, no case, and absolutely nothing to laugh about

You know the old saying, “Trust everybody, but cut the cards?”

The adage, often found on mugs and T-shirts sold in Irish bars like Mr. Dooley’s in Boston, is credited to Finley Peter Dunne, an author, writer and humorist.

If Dunne were here to see this story, he’d probably add the following: When a company promises you something, get it in writing. If you don’t, the result is not laughter — it’s pain.

Liliana Gutierrez contacted our advocacy team recently about an $1,800 refund from Expedia and

I’ll let her explain:

We went to Mexico a couple weeks ago. I made a reservation at a hotel, but on the day we arrived I had to cancel due to a family emergency. That night I spoke to the hotel and also to Expedia and They reassured me I would be refunded.

I later checked my account and I saw the amount had been taken out [sic], so I called Expedia (because the hotel refused to help me at all, saying they had nothing to do with it and it was all the agency) asking for the status of the refund.

The woman I spoke to told me they had called the week before and the hotel had agreed to the refund. When she called again that day the hotel now changed their story. I don’t know what to do! I’m frustrated, I trusted people’s word. Family is important, which is the reason for canceling. I tried having it all figured out before I left and I thought I had reassurances of this..

This is a common occurrence – people have valid family or other reasons for needing to cancel stays and changing plans, and one would hope that in some cases, refunds can be granted under extenuating or other circumstances.

Gutierrez said she believed the person who told her she would get a refund. But she didn’t have any of this in writing and seems to think she should not need it.

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Sadly, companies are all too willing to find reasons to change their minds and charge people anyway. If she has no written proof that someone offered her a refund, they can get away with it and she is out of luck.

Trusting someone’s word may not be enough these days – and surely not with anything involving travel. People absolutely must get things in writing to have a case.

When I travel – or when I enter into almost any large transaction that can affect major plans or large sums of money and other people (such as family) – I keep detailed notes. When dealing with hotel stays, here are a few examples of ways to do this:

  • Try to deal directly with hotels when booking, rather than going through third-party sites. If you use such a site, always get a duplicate confirmation from the hotel.
  • Keep hard copies and make an email folder for all correspondence related to your stay.
  • Try to resolve problems as they come up, not after you have returned home. Try to speak with an on-duty manager on-site, not afterward. And whatever is said or done, ask for full names, ID numbers and something in writing wherever possible. They have all my details and I am more than willing to show my driver’s license and other ID, so they should be able to do the same for me. And with the existence of smartphones and Wi-Fi, someone can easily email you or text you something you need while you are speaking to them so you have a written copy of it. If they refuse, you have to wonder why, and maybe avoid doing business with them in the future, and tell your friends to avoid them too. We want to trust people and not offend anyone, but surely managers can understand why their words to you may not make it up the chain when dealing with the back office.
  • “Get it in writing” especially applies to an offer of a refund or other compensation. Do not just agree by phone. If you do receive an offer over the phone, politely inform the person that you will accept the offer only if they are also willing to email it to you or text you with their name and ID attached to the comments. If they say they can’t or won’t, then inform them you need to record the call and do exactly that. You can buy a cheap phone monitoring recording device at places like RadioShack. Note that different states have different laws on recording calls.
  • These days so many companies – especially the third-party ones – make promises they can’t keep, hoping customers will never follow up. It may be wise to go into such transactions with the notion that something could go wrong and prepare yourself from the outset as though it is already happening. Get everyone’s name and ID. Keep records, record details, take pictures, and note who you spoke to and when. In the end, if your hotel stay went well, throw all this away. But if you did run into a problem, you will be way ahead of the game and you can hope to recoup any money that may be due you. Don’t think everything will work out; don’t think it’s nerdy to think something might go wrong, and cool to think everything will be fine. That’s nice, but the reality is that when something does go wrong – and it happens more than people like to admit – only those who were prepared and had all their ducks in a row will get somewhere with any advocacy complaint.
  • There are polite and “socially engineered” ways to obtain what you need to make your stay pleasant or your cancellation go more smoothly. Try to employ these so you don’t come off like someone who tries to find problems and cause complaints just to game the system. For example, you certainly don’t want to complain to a waiter about the service before you get the food.
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Unfortunately, Gutierrez ended as quickly as it began. Our advocates asked for a paper trail and she had none. She wanted to do everything by phone. Her situation is an unfortunate one because while she appears to be trying to just resolve this nicely and with ease of a few phone calls, we find that companies tend to blow off people who do not have written evidence.

It is too bad that we don’t live in a world where the spoken word can be trusted and people can do business with a smile and a handshake.

In order to survive these days and always allow such big transactions as hotel stays to end with everyone in agreement, we should never go forward without written agreements. I liken this to an incident in college when I loaned a “friend” $20 and had to bug him for months to get it back. Sometimes I think I would have remained better friends with him had we never entered into that situation. I should have made it clear from the outset that he owed me $20 by a certain date, but I thought he was a cool guy and I wanted to help him. Months later, he bought me a Guinness stout and a T-shirt from a bar, which I had to consider good enough in lieu of the money.

Trust everybody (act and be a person who is nice, professional and willing to do business fairly), but always cut the cards (get assurances, get things in writing, keep detailed records). Otherwise, a humorous T-shirt is all you might end up with.

Jeff Filipov

Jeff Filipov is a destination planner and a frequent commenter on this site. He became interested in advocacy when his father died on American Airlines flight 11 on Sept. 11, 2001.

  • AAGK

    When I saw this case in the forums, I thought no one goes to Mexico for vacation and leaves after one day unless they have a serious emergency so I considered the OP very credible. She informed the hotel she was leaving early and checked out. At that time she would have received a final bill, which she could easily obtain. If she secured the refund promise as a courtesy only upon return, then she isn’t out anything as she made the decision to leave not expecting get anything back anyway. She could also get copies of her return ticket home, which would show she really had an emergency and didn’t just find somewhere else she preferred to stay.

  • Annie M

    Two words- travel insurance. Trip interruption might have covered this.

    I am also surprised at the number of people who write in with these issues that never take the name of the person they speak to. You must document everything-date,time and who you spoke to. Many of these calls are recorded and having the info would allow these companies to go back and listen to what was said.

  • taxed2themax

    I agree… From an informal “smell-test” if you will, the scenario seems quite plausible.. I agree… but.. I also can’t rule out the possibility (which is also what the OP’s claims are absent some form of evidence) that the story has essential items left out/omitted or is materially different than fact.

    There could also be a simple and innocent (meaning occurred with malice) misunderstanding between the two.

    For me, given the OP is the one who is wanting the special dispensation, then the onus to make that case, prove that case, falls to her.

    As to the articles case that we really shouldn’t *need* to have proof and that someones ‘word’ should be enough.. I wholly agree.. but then this concept applies to many other aspects of life, and as unfortunate as it is, the reality is that not everyone can or will hold themselves to this standard
    .. so proof becomes a part of the reality.

  • PsyGuy

    Sounds like good advice, but in this situation getting it in writing just wouldn’t have happened. CSR’s are trained to provide cut and paste canned responses, and this is assumed you get a response at all. Even so if the hotel/Expedia would have said no, then what? “Emergency” is not some kind of catchall excuse that entitles anyone to a refund.

  • PsyGuy

    So do you have $20 I can borrow?

  • PsyGuy

    Most names are fake. Call centers have a standard list of generic English names that are used, especially in overseas call centers.

  • taxed2themax

    I agree that “emergency” tends to be a overly used catchall, that then becomes the rally cry for out-of-contract changes or refunds.. I also agree that a foreign call center or similar would be hard to get documentation– but I think even then, she could have made a better case than what she had — which as I read it, is essentially zero..

    As example, she might have noted the specific time/date of the call and the name — even if that’s fake — of the agent.. I mean anything would have been better than what she had — which was close to zero.

    True, even with this limited information, it can be argued that this still doesn’t prove what was said.. I agree.. Nor does it also say that what she wanted was approved or even reasonable.. but for me, it strengthens the overall case

  • PsyGuy

    Okay, but you can just make those things up. Look at your phone log for the call time and say the agent’s name was Jennifer. In which case you just gave credibility for nothing.

  • LeeAnneClark

    This is one of the rare times in which I agree with PsyGuy. ;-)

    Call centers, telemarketers, customer service lines – these people generally don’t use their real names. And PsyGuy is right – the overseas ones will almost always have a list of English names. Particularly in India – most Americans can’t even pronounce their names.

    You also can’t count on them being willing to cough up their recording…especially if doing so is going to work in YOUR favor, not theirs.

  • cscasi

    And, she could have asked the person at the hotel for a cancellation number when the reservation was cancelled. Many hotels only charge you for the first night if you cancel, unless you do one of those full pre-pay in advance and those clearly state that. But, there are also those that charge you for the entire stay if you fail to cancel sop many days in advance. We do not know what her reservation contained as far as cancellations allowed. Since she did not get the name of the person she spoke with at the hotel and has no documentation, Chris had no choice but to send it to “Case Dismissed”.

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