Yes, airlines can do something right

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By Christopher Elliott

If you think the airline industry doesn’t do anything right, think again.

A few weeks ago, Brian Crummy had to pay for the same night twice at two different hotels.

The reason: His plans changed, and the rate he’d booked was completely non-refundable and non-changeable, even when he waved his diamond elite card at the receptionist.

“They would not budge,” says Crummy, a sales manager from Gilbert, Ariz. “I feel like the hotels bank on me taking the advance-purchase rate to save money, in hopes that my plans change and they can cash in.”

Are airlines any better? Well, kinda.

Should hotels adopt more flexible policies, like airlines?

Had Crummy changed his mind within 24 hours of making his reservation, he could have received a full refund on his airline ticket, as long as it was a week or more before his departure.

Even if it wasn’t, he could have asked for — and received — a ticket credit, minus a $200 change fee.

I know, I know. Not the fairest comparison.

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True, many hotels still offer customer-friendly policies, including the ability to cancel a room without penalty, often until 6 p.m. on the day of arrival.

But times are changing. The 6 p.m. deadline is sliding up to 4 p.m. for a lot of hotels, and budget properties are offering modest discounts in exchange for the room being completely non-refundable, often with poor dis-closure.

The result: I’m being inundated by complaints from readers who say hotels aren’t playing fair. They want them to be more like airlines, in a limited way. For a non-refundable stay, should hotels offer a courtesy cancellation window and a room credit, when plans change?

Of course they should.

Why not hotels? Airlines did it, and profits soared

Why don’t they? The hotel argues that allowing any of these practices would cost it money, and it almost certainly would. The way a hotel sees it, it’s offering a discount of up to 20% in exchange for making your room completely non-refundable. In exchange, guests accept the risk that their plans might change and that they will forfeit the entire room charge.

“I don’t think it’s fair for the customer to have it both ways,” says Glenn Haussman, editor in chief of Hotel Interactive, a hotel industry trade publication.

“They have a choice allowing them to cancel up to the same day in many cases, and by offering a credit, for example, the industry is just asking for customers to always book rooms at lower rates, which, in turn, would erode industry profits.”

That may be accurate, but airlines used the same argument — that allowing a cancellation within a day of making a booking would hurt earnings — before the Transportation Department in 2011 imposed the 24-hour rule. Since then, industry profits have soared.

A fairer deal for hotel customers?

How about a room credit? Should a hotel just be able to keep all your money, as it did for Crummy, especially if his accommodations can be resold? (Here’s our ultimate guide to travel and money.)

Not every room can be rebooked, particularly for resorts in remote locations or that have long lengths of stays or during the week of a festival, for example.

“There may not be pickups of one-week reservations and around special events,” notes Bjorn Hanson, a professor at NYU’s Tisch Center for Hospitality, Tourism, and Sports Management. It seems right for a hotel to protect itself from any losses.

But if the room is resold, why not? Pocketing all a guest’s money seems wrong to many travelers.

Even if hotels wanted to do it that way, how would anyone go about verifying whether a room was resold? You’d have to take a hotel’s word for it that it did, or didn’t. No, that wouldn’t work. A room credit makes more sense.

“As non-refundable rooms become more prevalent, and I think they will, hotels will more than likely adopt policies such as offering rebooking opportunities for a fee or a 24-hour grace period for canceling a non-refundable booking,” says Stephen Barth, hospitality law professor at the Univer-sity of Houston.

That would be good news. Now, if we could only get airlines to be more like hotels — wouldn’t that be something?

Which industry has the most customer-friendly policies?

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Avoiding the room loss

How do you avoid getting stuck with a non-refundable hotel rate?

Look before you book. Many discount chains will give priority to these non-refundable rates on their websites, even when the discounts are negligible. Be sure to read the fine print in the terms before booking.

Consider travel insurance. An insurance policy can cover you if you need to cancel your trip. But significant restrictions apply. Consult your policy before making a claim.

Haggle if you can. Hotels are nowhere near as rigid with their rules as airlines, and a brief, polite e-mail to a manager or to the hotel chain’s headquarters can yield a room credit, if not a refund.

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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.

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