When Ronald MacDonald opened his credit card bill recently, he was shocked to find a $700 charge from the Holiday Inn Long Island at Islip Airport.
For what? A quick call confirmed that the hotel believed he’d damaged the TV in his room. Holiday Inn billed his credit card for a new one.
Can a hotel just charge your card like that? Yes, it can. But MacDonald’s efforts to reverse that charge is a troubling misadventure with a mysterious ending.
Along the way, we’ll answer a few questions:
- How do you avoid a questionable damage charge on your hotel bill?
- How do you fight a bogus hotel damage charge on your bill?
- What kind of proof does a hotel need to show you before it can charge you for damage?
But first, please clear your mind of that image of Ronald McDonald, the fast-food mascot, trashing his hotel room. This Ronald MacDonald is a retired physician, not a clown selling burgers. And he says he never went on any kind of rampage in his room — and never touched the television.
How the hotel charged him $700 for damaging his TV
MacDonald stayed at the Holiday Inn for one night this summer. He checked in at 6:30 p.m. and left the next morning at 8:15 a.m. — not enough time for housekeeping to service the room and discover any damage.
“I never used the television in the room,” says MacDonald.
Four days later, Holiday Inn charged his card $700 without warning or advance notification.
He phoned the hotel. A representative told him there was damage to the TV in the room and that they needed to replace the unit.
“I never turned the TV on,” he protested. “It did not have a broken screen. If it did, I would have reported it to the front desk.”
The property refused to remove the $700 charge.
But that wasn’t the only thing that irritated MacDonald about the Holiday Inn charge.
“Holiday Inn never tried to contact me about the damaged TV,” he says. It just charged the card with zero notification — and without showing him any evidence of the damage he had allegedly caused.
MacDonald knew what his next move would be, but it was a risky one.
Next: A credit card dispute with Capital One
Since the hotel refused to reverse the charge, MacDonald felt the fastest way to a resolution was a credit card dispute. A chargeback can be effective in a situation like this, but you’re taking a chance.
Holiday Inn had not furnished MacDonald with any evidence that he had caused the damage or that it had tried to repair the TV set. All it sent him — after repeated requests for evidence — was a blurry image of a TV screen with what appeared to be a dent in the side.
A credit card chargeback is a nuclear option. If you succeed, problem solved. But if you fail, your next option is a trip to small claims court or to my advocacy team. (I have more information in my ultimate guide to a credit card dispute.)
The image of the blue screen must have been persuasive to MacDonald’s credit card company, which denied his dispute.
“Capital One suggested if I still wished to dispute the charge, I should contact Holiday Inn,” he says.
MacDonald couldn’t believe it. Not only had he not damaged the TV, but he had also been a loyal IHG guest for many years. Why didn’t that loyalty buy him the benefit of the doubt? And how could he have avoided this?
How do you avoid a surprise charge for damage on your hotel bill?
I’ve mediated hundreds of damage cases like this. For example, here’s a similar problem where Wyndham charged a guest $600 for a TV it says he damaged. And here’s another Holiday Inn case involving a damaged bathtub. They follow a pattern, and that pattern is a road map for avoiding a bogus damage claim.
First, to the question of MacDonald’s loyalty. There’s little evidence that hotels consider your elite status when they assess their damage claims. This makes sense. The color of your card doesn’t lessen the damage to furniture or appliances. (Related: The strange case of the dog bite and the $2,305 hotel bill.)
So how do you avoid a surprise charge?
Check the room for damage when you arrive
Housekeeping staff is under immense pressure to clean as many rooms as possible, so they are likely to miss damage to a room. Walk through your room. Examine the TV set, as well as any appliances, light fixtures, and furniture. If anything looks out of place, report it immediately. Otherwise, the hotel could hold you liable for something you didn’t do.
Take “before” and “after” photos
I know, it sounds ridiculous. But you need to prove that you left the room in the same condition you found it. I’ve started to take “before” and “after” images of my hotel rooms, and especially vacation rentals. Virtually all of the hotel damage charge cases I receive could have been avoided with photographic evidence.
Avoid these hotels
Although a surprise damage charge can happen at any hotel, certain types of properties seem to generate the lion’s share of damage cases. Typically, budget hotels (those costing less than $100 a night) are far more likely to charge your credit card for damage, whether or not you were responsible. Holiday Inn, which charged MacDonald $253 for a one-night stay, was a little upscale for a case like this.
Monitor your credit card closely
Some hotels have a policy of billing guests without notification. That means it’s up to you to spot the charges on your bill and ask the hotel to provide evidence of the damage. The longer you wait, the harder it becomes to dispute a charge. Under the Fair Credit Billing Act, you only have 60 days from the day you receive your bill to file a dispute.
Special note for short stays: If you’re staying in a hotel for less than 24 hours, the housekeeping staff may not have an opportunity to clean your room and report any damage. That makes you particularly vulnerable to a surprise damage charge. If you stay in a hotel for less than a day, you really have to do a careful inspection.
Bottom line: To avoid a hotel damage charge, you have to check your room carefully, take “before” and “after” pictures, and monitor your credit card.
But is it possible to get your charge removed even if you failed to do all of the above?
How do you fight a hotel charge on your bill?
If you see a surprise charge from your hotel a few days after you check out, don’t panic. The good news is, you have a better than 50 percent chance of getting the charge removed. But you’ll have to fight for it.
Wait, were you responsible?
The first question you need to ask is a hard one, and it’s a question to yourself: Did you do it? If you or a member of your party may have damaged something in the room, please own up to it and pay the bill. No excuses about “wear and tear.” If you accidentally knocked over a vase or dented the TV with your luggage, take responsibility. The advice in this article is not meant to be used by readers who want to get out of legitimate claims. And if you do, the consumer advocacy gods will find you.
Ask for documentation of the damage
The Achilles heel of hotel damage claims is documentation. Many hotels believe they don’t need to furnish you with any proof of damage. When forced, they show fuzzy images without time stamps or any proof that the damaged item was in the room (as Holiday Inn did with MacDonald). Sometimes, simply requesting the documentation is enough to make the hotel drop the claim.
Request a repair invoice
Again, a simple request — show me proof that you bought a new TV or vase or alarm clock. And again, 9 times out of 10, the hotel won’t be able to show you proof. A review of MacDonald’s credit card dispute resolution shows that’s exactly what happened. Holiday Inn basically said, “You have to take our word for it that we had a $700 expense.”
Appeal to the corporate level
If you’re staying at a chain hotel, you can appeal a damage claim to the corporate parent. In MacDonald’s case, that would be InterContinental Hotels Group. Depending on the ownership structure, the chain can reverse the decision to charge a customer or pressure the hotel to do so. This strategy is particularly effective when the hotel is corporate-owned, as opposed to franchise-owned.
File a credit card dispute
As mentioned previously, this should be your last option, after your efforts to negotiate a resolution have failed. You can contact your credit card company and dispute the charges on your card. Your bank will ask the hotel for evidence that you damaged something in your room. If it can’t provide evidence, then it will reverse the charge.
Should you take your case to law enforcement? No, and here’s why: Bothering the local police or the state attorney general with a claim dispute won’t change the outcome. This is a simple disagreement between two parties — a hotel that claims you’ve damaged something in your room, and a guest who believes they’re not responsible. You’re much better off pressuring the hotel to drop the charge or enlisting your credit card company than calling the cops.
But would any of those strategies work for MacDonald? Let’s find out.
A “significant loss” for Holiday Inn
I reached out to InterContinental Hotels Group on MacDonald’s behalf. The hotel needed to review this case because of the following problems:
- It didn’t tell MacDonald about the damage but simply charged $700 to his card.
- It did not show him an estimate, a repair invoice or an invoice to buy a new TV.
- There was no conclusive evidence that he had damaged the TV. (No time-stamped photo that showed the damage.)
I think there was a right way to do this: Holiday Inn should have reached out to him before charging his card. The hotel should have shown him the damaged TV and shared an invoice for the repair or replacement. Had it done so, I don’t think this would have been a story.
I recommended that the property send MacDonald evidence that he had damaged the television during his stay. I don’t think MacDonald would have refused to pay a legitimate claim, but so far, Holiday Inn hadn’t really made a very convincing case.
InterContinental deferred to the Holiday Inn property.
The hotel’s general manager responded directly to MacDonald in an email, which MacDonald shared with me.
“Our rooms get inspected daily by the housekeepers and supervisory staff after every check out,” the general manager claimed in the email. “They reported the TV damage in your room right away.”
The manager said that the fact that MacDonald never turned on the TV is evidence that he probably overlooked the damage.
“However, it still resulted in significant loss for the property as the TV screen was no longer usable and had to be replaced,” the manager added. “As per policy, we charge guests for damage incurred during their stay. I am very sorry to say I cannot process the refund.”
The manager attached a picture, which he said had rendered the screen blue. (MacDonald said he didn’t go near the TV during his stay and that the screen was not blue. If it had been, he says he wouldn’t have been able to sleep.)
If you’re ever in this situation, your best bet is an appeal of your credit card dispute. MacDonald could send another email to Capital One notifying it that he refuses to pay this charge. That would trigger another review by a more senior dispute specialist, who will no doubt ask for evidence like photos of the damaged TV or repair invoices. And if those don’t exist, Capital One would reverse the charges.
MacDonald could also consider filing a complaint with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. That lets Capital One know that he means business with the dispute. Plus, it could give the dispute an added sense of urgency.
But that’s not how this story ended.
A mysterious and frustrating ending
I’ve been working on this case for the last two weeks. A representative from InterContinental Hotels claimed both parties had spoken by phone, which MacDonald denies. Holiday Inn’s general manager didn’t respond to my requests for information on the damaged TV.
Then MacDonald stopped answering my questions about the case.
Here’s what I thought was going on behind the scenes: The hotel did not want me to write a story, so it believed ignoring me would deprive me of the information I needed to write the article. (Perhaps it was unaware that MacDonald had already sent me the entire cache of correspondence before going into radio silence.)
So why was MacDonald not talking? Initially, I speculated that Holiday Inn contacted him and tried to resolve this matter quietly. Companies often try to push a settlement agreement under a customer’s nose with a nondisclosure clause that forbids them from discussing the case.
But that didn’t stop me from writing the story.
In an initial version of this story, I speculated that MacDonald had settled this claim and that Holiday Inn had dropped its $700 charge.
But that was not the end.
The mystery has been resolved … and here’s your happy ending
The day after this story appeared, MacDonald contacted me to let me know that he had not reached a settlement with Holiday Inn. I promised to stay on this case until it was resolved. And I did.
I asked MacDonald to file an appeal with Capital One. He did — and again, it was rejected.
So I contacted Capital One directly on his behalf.
Hi [name redacted],
I’m just checking on this query. This case is really extraordinary. The merchant appears to have simply charged Dr. MacDonald for a brand-new TV set, without providing him with any convincing evidence of damage or giving him an opportunity for a rebuttal. The merchant refuses to communicate with him. Is there any way you can ask someone to review his case, please?
A day later, and two weeks after this story appeared, Capital One finally came through:
Hi Chris, our customer service department will be reaching out to Ronald to let him know this dispute has been resolved in his favor, and his account will be credited for the $700. It should be posted to his account in 2-3 business days, and he will receive a letter in the mail documenting this decision.
About this story
This was one of the most frustrating cases to advocate in years. The evidence Holiday Inn sent MacDonald and his credit card company was hardly convincing, and I wondered how many other innocent customers had paid for that property’s new TV sets and other furniture. This story was researched, written and fact-checked by Christopher Elliott, edited by Andy Smith and his team and illustrated by Aren Elliott.