Dear Tripped Up,
My wife and I were supposed to attend a wedding in Sonoma this spring, but the affair was obviously canceled. I canceled our Best Western reservation well before the 24 hours required by the company’s new coronavirus cancellation policy, but was told that the only option is to postpone our stay for a year — as if I jet-set out to wine country every year for a wedding (and besides, I’m more of a beer guy). I’ve been messaging back and forth with Best Western on Facebook; the customer-service people said the hitch lies with the hotel owner, who is refusing to issue the refund. What’s the point of flexible corporate cancellation policies if individual hotels aren’t required to adhere to them? George
The pandemic has brought to light some nerdy issues about the travel industry — ones that most of us never needed to think about before. But here we are, wondering aloud about the oversight capabilities of hotel franchises, and what powers they can exert over their thousands of individual owners.
I got several emails about this topic. Nick, another reader, faced a nearly identical uphill battle while trying to cancel a June reservation at the Hilton Rome Airport. Hilton’s stated policies for refunds are flexible, yet the individual hotel owner refuses to budge.
For starters, the answer is yes: Whenever a company like Best Western or Hilton announces a flexible corporate cancellation policy, it’s meant to apply to all branded hotels. But Best Western also states outright that a small percentage of individual owners may be eligible to deny refunds on a small percentage of bookings. And that’s what happened here.
A spokeswoman for Best Western said in a statement that “During the COVID-19 pandemic, Best Western Hotels & Resorts has offered a flexible cancellation policy to its valued guests. This policy includes that ‘a more restrictive cancellation policy may apply to a limited number of high-demand dates at individual hotels,’ which was applicable to this guest’s reservation.”
After reaching out to Hilton, I learned that Nick got trapped by an even more peculiar loophole — a bizarre wrench in the pandemic’s ever-expanding toolbox of bizarre wrenches. On March 17, Italy passed the “Cura Italia” decree, a relief measure meant to offset the economic toll of the pandemic in one of the hardest-hit countries. The new law gave hotel owners in Italy the option to make the call on whether to issue refunds or vouchers.
As I’ve reported before, cash-strapped travel companies have numerous reasons for retaining non-refundable payments in the age of the coronavirus, and it’s also not hard to understand why the owner of hotel in Italy — at an airport, no less — would choose that option, especially when expressly given the greenlight by the Italian government. Another reader bemoaned a similar issue, also with an Italian hotel. “Why is an American who never set foot on Italian soil subject to a new Italian decree?” she wondered.
In general, though, hotels have generally been better about Covid-related cash refunds than airlines, tour operators and cruise lines. In mid-March, as the world started shutting down, every major hotel company announced newly flexible cancellation terms, even for “non-refundable” or “advance purchase” reservations. And even now, as we move into summer, hotel policies remain pretty flexible. Hilton, for example, allows guests to cancel any reservation booked through August without penalty, so long as it’s done so at least 24 hours before the arrival date. It’s a strategic move meant to get people to take a leap, plan travel, book trips.
Hilton’s communications department has worked its magic — a spokeswoman for the brand has confirmed that Nick’s refund is in process. And in a followup email, you told me that Best Western’s Facebook customer-service team has offered you a gift card, which, unlike a rebooked stay, can be used at any of the company’s hotels.
I realize it’s not quite the same as a cash refund, but amid an era when planning (and canceling) travel feels especially difficult and impersonal, measures like these can feel like a welcome human touch. Whatever you’re drinking — be it beer or wine — I’ll say cheers to that.
The May 25 edition of Tripped Up, about widespread refund issues with a Boston-based tour operator, drew hundreds of reader responses. One, from a woman named Lisa, stuck with me: “I love to travel and am very aware that many travel services companies are fighting for their lives,” she wrote. “But as a customer, I am increasingly concerned about shouldering the bankruptcy risk of the tour operator. If they go bankrupt, those vouchers are worthless. It’s a real dilemma, how to be supportive of travel companies yet not end up losing thousands.”
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