Hotels occasionally can't provide a promised room for several reasons -- typically either deliberate overbooking or having current guests stay longer than originally planned. What are your "rights" when you arrive at the desk to find no room? I have been unable to find any legal requirements at any level of government beyond contract law, even when a reservation is fully prepaid. The normal industry practice is to try to fix the problem on the spot:
-- If a hotel has no rooms at all, standard practice is to "walk" you to another hotel of "equal or better" quality, picking up the cost of your first night there and your cab fare to get there, re-accommodating you the next day.
Despite what you might have read, however, "walking" is not an enforceable legal requirement. Instead, it's just industry practice, not codified anywhere, and honored sometimes but not always. Whenever I've faced an oversold hotel, the hotel has "walked" me, per the practice, to a nearby hotel, but the substitute hotels were always "unequal or worse," not "equal or better" than the original. And I've seen reports of travelers' being walked from an oversold city center hotel to a motel in the suburbs.
Car rental companies, too, sometimes can't honor a reservation. And, again, there are no legal requirements. Industry practice parallels the hotel case:
-- If other models are available, a rental company usually upgrades you to a more expensive category of car, whether or not you really want a bigger car, at no increase in rate, although the agent might first try to talk you into paying that car's higher rate. If only lower-category cars are available, you get downgraded with a rate adjustment.
-- If the company has no cars at all, a rental company might agree to find a rental from another company and pay any rate difference -- but not without first asking you to wait "briefly" around the office as customers return cars.
If you arrive at your destination and your hotel or car rental company can't honor your reservation, your alternatives are limited:
-- Accept whatever solution you're offered, if it's at all reasonable.
-- If the net result of the offer is a downgrade, ask for a lower rate or extra compensation.
-- If the offer is unacceptable, negotiate for something better. If the clerk or agent says, "take it, or leave it," ask to see a manager.
-- If that doesn't work, get on your cellphone, find your own alternative, then ask the supplier to arrange that option.
-- If the agent stonewalls you, pay for the alternative you want, and submit a formal demand for reimbursement when you can -- first with the hotel's ownership, and if that fails, in small claims court, where your legal case is strong.
But keep in mind that what you need is a room or car right now, not a verdict in six months. You have to set the balance.
(Send e-mail to Ed Perkins at eperkins(at)mind.net. Perkins' new book for small business and independent professionals, "Business Travel When It's Your Money," is now available through http://www.mybusinesstravel.com or http://www.amazon.com)