Can this trip be saved? Stuck with a $2,430 bill at the Copacabana Palace Hotel and Spa

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Christopher Elliott

The Copacabana Palace Hotel and Spa has a reputation as one of the finest resorts in the southern hemisphere. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced through its Art Deco halls and the Rolling Stones tuned up in its grand salon before their concert on the beach, according to the hotel.

The luxury comes at a price: Room rates start at $623 at this time of year, not including taxes and gratuities.

Aleksandar Milosevic knew the Copacabana wasn’t inexpensive when he checked into the hotel last May, but he also knew he wouldn’t have to pay for it. The Brazilian government was hosting Milosevic for a UN Alliance of Civilizations conference in Rio. The government had chosen the hotel.

Milosevic made sure all of the arrangements were in order when he arrived, and was assured that Brazil was picking up the tab for his room. But when he checked out of the resort, a hotel employee surprised him by showing him a bill for $2,430.

“You have to pay,” the associate told him. “The Brazilian government canceled its sponsorship of your accommodations.”

Then things turned unpleasant. Milosevic asked why he hadn’t been informed of the government’s decision, and according to him, a hotel manager told him it wasn’t obligated to do so. The Copacabana insisted he pay before being allowed to leave.

What followed was an awkward series of misunderstandings that upset Milosevic so much that he has contacted an attorney and wants to sue the hotel.

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Although he was able to get in touch with his host, and managed to get the Brazilian government to cover part of the bill, the hotel continued to insist that he cover the balance — specifically, several meals and minibar charges Milosevic says he isn’t responsible for.

The hotel’s attitude fluctuated between polite and condescending, which is not unusual for high-end resorts.

“The hotel has an obligation to be fully professional,” he says. “It wasn’t.”

In the end, Milosevic only paid for four meals, which he says is “no problem.” But he wants the hotel to compensate him for the trouble — the embarrassment of having to re-negotiate his bill, and for being threatened and “blackmailed” by one of the best resorts on the continent.

I corresponded extensively with Milosevic after he contacted me and asked him what he wanted. He said an apology would be a good start. I agree.

He had written to both the Copacabana and Orient Express, which owns the hotel, but received no meaningful response. I think that could be because of some cultural miscues and possibly some problems with the tone of his initial letter (it was rambling, accusatory and didn’t ask for anything).

In cases like this, I’ve also seen a hotel offer one or two nights on the house for a future stay. It is highly unlikely Milosevic will be back in Rio anytime soon, but Orient Express could offer its former guest a voucher at one of its other properties, which he could certainly use.

But should I get involved in this dispute? I think Milosevic is capable of writing a brief, concise email to both the Copacabana and its owner, stating his problem and a resolution, and I’m sure he’ll get a genuine apology. It might also refund the meals and offer him a voucher, but I don’t think it is obligated to.

A poll of more than 700 readers said I should let Milosevic try to resolve this on his own.

Thanks to everyone for the lively discussion on this case.

(Photo: Rodrigo_Soldon/Flickr Creative Commons)

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. He is based in Tokyo.

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