Can you stay in a terrible hotel and then get a refund?

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By Christopher Elliott

Wendy Rutkowski stayed in a terrible hotel, and she wants a full refund. But can you get your money back when you accidentally booked a room at the No-Tell Motel?

Interesting question.

For Rutkowski, the No-Tell was a Howard Johnson’s in Wisconsin. Her stay there was so terrible that she asked AARP, through which she’d booked the property, for a refund. AARP quickly offered a $200 voucher, but when the coupon didn’t work, she turned to my advocacy team for assistance.

Her case is a reminder that there’s a right way and a wrong way to handle a hotel problem. But it’s also a reassuring story because it underscores the fact that it’s never too late to get compensation — or a refund. (Related: Here’s the secret to getting a hotel refund.)

A complaint about a terrible hotel, and a swift resolution — or was it?

Rutkowski paid $460 for a week at the Howard Johnson’s. It was, to put it mildly, an ordeal.

“The room got cleaned only once,” she says. “There was construction noise. There was a moldy mattress. And there were nails on the floor. Also, the room smelled.”

This terrible hotel came complete with moldy mattresses and constructions material all over the carpets.
Rutkowski found nails and other construction materials on the carpets throughout this terrible hotel

Also, she says the employees were noisy, knocking on her door in the early morning and banging on a vending machine late at night.

It sounds like Howard Johnson’s was undergoing a much-needed remodeling during her stay. Many of the problems she encountered could have been addressed on-site, but she stayed in the property for the full week. She should have checked out immediately.

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The terrible view from the terrible room at this terrible hotel.
The view from Rutkowski’s uncleaned room

Following her stay, she complained to AARP, through which she’d booked the room, and a representative promptly agreed to offer a $200 goodwill voucher. Expedia powers AARP’s booking engine, so technically Expedia gave her the voucher.

Unfortunately, the voucher didn’t work.

“When I tried to use the voucher through Expedia, the hotels I picked would not accept it,” she says. “Come to find out, the coupon could only be used at a few hotels, which were not satisfactory to us. I contacted Expedia again, to try to get them to push this coupon through for one of the hotels we picked. No luck.”

And that’s how we got the case.

So can you stay in a terrible hotel and then get a refund?

Our advocacy team has dealt with cases like Rutkowski’s many times. Someone stays in a hotel and has such a terrible experience that they want a full refund. Is that even possible?

Well, kind of.

It all depends on the circumstances — and the timing of the request. (Related: Help! I’ve been ‘walked’ to a motel.)

In Rutkowski’s case, she stayed at Howard Johnson’s for the full seven nights she booked. There’s no written evidence that she tried to resolve any of the problems on site, which makes this difficult case even more difficult.

Here are the steps to a refund:

Tell the hotel about your problem immediately. Issues like room cleaning, a foul smell and moldy mattresses can be addressed then and there, not after you check out. If you suspect you have a laundry list of complaints, then narrow it down to the worst issues — perhaps the moldy mattress — and escalate it to the highest level until it’s resolved.

Give the hotel a chance to fix the issue

The Howard Johnson’s might have resolved all of Rutkowski problems, had she given it an opportunity. If she had an issue with construction noise, for example, the hotel might have moved her to a quieter floor. Again, while she might have said something, there’s no written evidence. See my next point.

Get the hotel chain involved and start a paper trail

At some point during Rutkowski’s week-long stay, she needed to reach out to Howard Johnson’s corporate and asked it to help her. At that point, the paper trail becomes extremely important. (To her credit, she took great photos of the substandard room.)

Ask your travel agent to help

Rutkowski had several advantages. She’d made her reservation through AARP, powered by Expedia, which has a lot of clout with a company like Howard Johnson’s. Although she leaned on the company for a fix after her stay, she might have asked for help before she left the property.


Don’t stay in a terrible hotel. If your efforts to fix a problem fail, find alternate accommodations. Do not stay in the hotel for a week.

If Rutkowski had followed these steps, I don’t think I’d have a story to write.

Chasing a refund for this awful hotel

After Rutkowski’s voucher failed, she tried to appeal to her credit card company. But it turned down her dispute, saying she had already stayed in the hotel and had paid for it a long time ago. None of her contacts at Expedia or AARP would help her use the $200 voucher, which is when she turned to my advocacy team. After reaching out to the Elliott Advocacy team, our advocate Dwayne Coward contacted Expedia on her behalf. Here’s how it responded:

After hearing of our customer’s experience, we contacted the property and advocated on their behalf on more than one occasion.

The property declined a refund. However, Expedia has gone ahead and provided the customer with a full refund requested in the amount of $461.68.

We are also taking steps to look into the condition of this hotel and it should be temporarily unavailable on our site until we complete our research. The customer also received a $200 voucher to use for an upcoming booking as a gesture of goodwill for their inconvenience.

Our customers are our first priority and we will always advocate for them with our partners and do everything we can when they encounter a less than satisfactory experience.

Rutkowski is pleased with that resolution, and so is my team.

There’s plenty of blame to go around. Expedia shouldn’t have issued an unusable voucher, Rutkowski should have been more proactive in trying to get the problems fixed while she was still at the hotel. And Howard Johnson’s — oh, Howard Johnson’s, where do I even start? This is no way to run a hotel.

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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 X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. He is based in Panamá City.

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