All the reasons why you can’t get a refund for your destination wedding

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By Christopher Elliott

All Melanie Brown wanted was a refund for a destination wedding in Belize last summer. All she got was excuse after excuse after excuse.

It’s something else to keep in mind one year after the COVID-19 pandemic sank large segments of the travel industry. Salvaging your refund may mean navigating an excuse factory that hotels and other companies have hastily built to keep your money.

Brown’s experience is also instructive because it’s a map that shows you how to bypass these bogus reasons for pocketing your deposits — whether it’s a refund for a destination wedding or just a hard-earned vacation.

What happens when your destination wedding is canceled?

“My brother was supposed to get married in Belize last June at Mahogany Bay Resort, a Hilton property,” explains Brown. “When it became clear that we wouldn’t be able to travel due to COVID, the wedding was postponed, and then canceled.”

To reserve her stay, Brown had paid a 50 percent deposit ($744) which was fully refundable if she canceled 30 days before the check-in date.

Brown canceled her stay to attend her brother’s wedding in Belize last March, a full 62 days before the big day.

And then she waited. And waited.

After a month, she reached out to the Mahogany Bay Resort to ask about her refund. It offered an excuse — we’ll get to that in a moment — but no money. Then she contacted Hilton corporate. It also offered an excuse but no refund. She disputed her credit card charges, but that also failed. And finally, she reached out to my advocacy team for help.

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Let’s get this obvious fact out of the way: If something is fully refundable, it’s fully refundable.

And that also means it’s refundable within a reasonable amount of time. It takes a hotel a few seconds to suck the money from your account when you pay by credit card. It should take them about as long to return it, but certainly no more than a few days. During a pandemic, you might want to cut them a little slack and give them a month or two. But anything more than that is an interest-free microloan.

“All banks are closed down until further notice”

When Brown asked her hotel for a refund, here’s how it responded:

Sunny greetings to you,

Thank you for your email, please note as a hotel courtesy we can offer you a credit voucher so you can rebook your dates if you’d like.

Please note San Pedro is on quarantine therefore all banks are closed down until further notice.

Since it’s a separate credit card and not the one on file a refund can be done but it will need to be till we get back in office.

Kindly advise if you’d like to continue with changing dates or refunds.

Looking forward to hearing from you.

Kind regards,

[Name redacted]
Reservations Agent | Mahogany Bay Resort & Beach Club | San Pedro, Belize

Sunny, Schmunny.

The bank closure excuse is exactly that — an excuse. Sure, there were intermittent disruptions during the initial outbreak. But not something that would have delayed her refund.

There wasn’t a way to verify any of this at the time. But Brown was suspicious, and as she continued to wait, her suspicions deepened.

“The Mahogany Bay is independently owned and operated”

The hotel reopened a few months later and the closed-bank excuse was replaced with another one. It seems the hotel was kind of a free agent that could do as it pleased. Even though Brown thought she was doing business with Hilton, it turns out she wasn’t. Not really.

Hilton explained it best in an email to Dwayne Coward, our advocate, when he contacted the company to ask about Brown’s refund.

“Please note that while Mahogany Bay Resort & Beach Club, Curio Collection by Hilton is independently owned and operated, we will share this with our guest assistance team for further investigation on Ms. Brown’s inquiry,” a Hilton rep told him in an email.

Brown got the same message.

“I contacted Hilton corporate and they kept sending me back to Mahogany Bay for resolution,” she says.

After sending emails every month, Mahogany Bay fell silent in January.

“I contacted my credit card company when the resort stopped responding to me and they said that it was too late to dispute the charge,” she says. “I even contacted the tourism bureau in Belize — no response.”

So how do you get a refund for your destination wedding?

By the time Brown contacted us, she’d been waiting almost a year for a refund.

That’s right. One year.

Her hotel had cited a short-lived bank closure and then Hilton invoked its franchise agreement to brush her off.

Did I mention she waited a whole year?

Now, we’ve had some pretty long waits for a refund during the pandemic. We thought it would be simple. But it wasn’t. We’re overloaded with cases that have taken weeks, months and in some cases more than a year to resolve.

A few months ago, I tried to answer the question: How long should I wait for a refund? Short answer: If you clicked on the link to that story, you’ve probably been waiting too long.

And then, of course, there are some refunds that will never happen.

Don’t let your credit card off the hook

It’s true that under the Fair Credit Billing Act, you have 60 days from the time you receive your credit card bill to dispute a charge with a card issuer. But that doesn’t mean your bank or credit card issuer can’t help you after that. In Brown’s case, she hadn’t received the service she ordered and, under the terms of her purchase, was clearly entitled to a refund. Case closed!

Hotel franchise agreements are irrelevant

If you booked a Hilton hotel, the buck stops with Hilton. You can’t allow it to weasel out of its agreement when it’s convenient. But then, when it suits the hotel, it can advertise itself as a Hilton and let customers use all of those Honors points for “free” rooms. Nope, you can’t have it both ways. Either you are a Hilton — or you’re not.

Apply constant and polite pressure for best results

Brown did the right thing — she applied constant pressure, emailing the hotel every month to ask about her refund. There’s no better way to get the attention of a Hilton (franchise or not) than to be the proverbial squeaky wheel. Brown just needed to squeak a little louder.

Dwayne took up Brown’s case of the refund for her destination wedding. And I wish I could say getting a refund for her was easy, but it wasn’t. He reached out to Hilton, and although it contacted Brown to try to assist, it ran into problems. It turns out the Mahogany Bay hadn’t issued a reservation number for her when she booked her stay, so when she asked for a refund for her destination wedding, it couldn’t find any record of her. (Related: A canceled wedding causes an existential crisis.)

The good news: Here’s the refund for the canceled destination wedding

Finally, though, she provided Hilton with additional information it needed to find her reservation. Hilton’s corporate office contacted the Mahogany Bay. A representative from the hotel contacted her. They talked. Then she received the following email:

I am sending this follow-up to emphasize our sincerest apologies for your overall experience with your refund deposit of $774 at the Mahogany Bay Resort & Beach Club, Curio Collection by Hilton canceled in compliance with our global COVID-19 cancellation policy.

Know that we genuinely appreciate your patience during this extraordinary time of the pandemic while some of our properties closed per their government mandate delaying resolution for our guests.

As we discussed, in speaking with [name redacted], in house reservation specialist on your behalf this morning, she confirmed they are awaiting final approval from their senior management team and are unsure of the time frame to issue your refund. I will be happy to own this and process your refund of $774. Please allow 30 days for the check to process and be delivered by USPS.

Additionally, as a goodwill gesture for any inconvenience, we may have caused, I have credited your Honors account with 30,000 points. These points will be available immediately for your use. Indeed, this won’t change your experience, but we hope it will underscore our commitment to your satisfaction.

Ms. Brown, thank you for bringing this matter to our attention and for allowing me the opportunity to Make it Right! We appreciate your loyalty to our partnership as we look forward to your continued stays within our Portfolio of Brands.

Please feel free to contact me for any further assistance in this matter.

Stay well and be safe!

Brown is happy with that resolution — and so are we. Hilton owned the problem, as it should have in the first place. It sent her a refund for the canceled destination wedding and added a few points as an apology.

I guess you could consider that interest on the microloan she gave the Mahogany Bay last year.

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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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