Broke bride wants a $3,000 refund from Hilton — should I help her?

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Six months before getting married in her hometown of Santa Rosa, Calif., Pamela Baker-Miller made hotel arrangements for some of the guests visiting from out of town. She called Hilton Sonoma Wine Country and reserved a block of rooms — but not before getting assurances that she wouldn’t be on the hook for the accommodations.

“The hotel was unable to reserve a block of less than 20 rooms, so they advised me to call Hilton’s 800-number,” she says. “Hilton reservations told me to book the rooms under my name from which my guests could take these reservations, put them in their own name and pay with their own credit cards. I was then told to call a few days before the event to cancel any unused rooms.”

Baker-Miller never received a confirmation e-mail.

“Fast forward to 10 days before the wedding,” she says. “I called Hilton to cancel the rooms that were not spoken for. The woman at guest services told me I didn’t need to cancel a thing because the rooms were all booked. I said, ‘I want to make sure my card won’t be charged’ and she assured me it would not.”

But it was. After the wedding, Hilton sent the self-described “broke” newlywed a bill for $3,000. She called the hotel to dispute the bill, but it wouldn’t move. She contested the bill on her credit card — no go. Now she wants me to step in and fix this.

To her, this is a problem of Hilton’s making.

I never received a confirmation email from the Hilton at the time of booking, I booked the rooms as instructed. When my guests registered they weren’t put into those rooms and because I cancelled the rooms but was told I didn’t need to cancel and was never given a cancellation number (I have cell phone records of the calls I made to cancel). I got verbal assurance from Hilton that my credit card wouldn’t be charged, but it was.

But I think she could have done a few things to prevent this from going sideways. You have to insist on some kind of paperwork, even when you’re just making a reservation for just one person. The fact that Hilton didn’t send her a confirmation should have had the big red flags flapping in the wind.

The hotel’s cancellation policy for groups is clearly spelled out on its site, so if Baker-Miller phoned the hotel to cancel her reservation 10 days before the event, then something went very wrong.

One of the things missing from this case, as is often the case, was a paper trail. Too much had taken place by phone, so I suggested that Baker-Miller send an email to the hotel and to Hilton corporate.

Here’s how the general manager responded:

Unfortunately as I had stated before I am not able to refund your money for the reservations that you had made here at the hotel.

After your mother and I had talked you chose to dispute with American Express before I was able to respond.

The story I had gotten from your mother as well as the email she gave me that you had written to her and also the ones you have written to me do not seem to have the same information or facts in them.

With no proof of cancellation on your part we will be holding firm on the charges.

I realize this is not what you wanted to hear but I do hope you understand my position.

Baker-Miller would have definitely benefited from the services of a professional travel agent or wedding planner, who could have ensured this kind of thing wouldn’t happen.

Hilton could have done better, too, by sending her a confirmation for the reservation and the cancellation and training its employees to clearly state their policies instead of just assuring customers that everything would be OK.

This is not an easy case. It looks as if Baker-Miller could have done a few things to avoid this big bill: getting a written confirmation from Hilton for the reservation and the cancellation; reviewing their group cancellation policy and allowing the hotel to resolve the problem first before disputing the Amex bill.

I’m sympathetic to this bride’s problem and would like to help. But I’m not sure what I can do. Contacting Hilton might persuade it to fork over this newlywed’s $3k, but someone else slept in those rooms. Shouldn’t someone else pay for them?

Update (9/15): After some back-and-forth between the hotel, the bride and me, Baker-Miller accepted a $1,182 refund from Hilton, according to the hotel. That’s a 50 percent refund.

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