9:30 AM EDT, September 30, 2013
A two-night stay at the Driftwood Inn in Chestertown, Md., was supposed to cost Bruce Romano $138 through a website called HotelPlus Destination Portal, as long as he prepaid for his accommodations. That seemed like a good deal. After all, it was Memorial Day weekend, one of the busiest travel times of the year.
But it didn't make sense to the Driftwood Inn, a budget hotel that decorates its rooms with flotsam and other artifacts pulled from the Atlantic. An employee claimed that the hotel didn't know much about Romano's reservation when he checked in.
"When I arrived at the Driftwood Inn, they had my name but insisted that I needed to pay them directly," says Romano, who works for the federal government in Washington, "and at a higher rate."
He coughed up an additional $157 for his room, paying twice for the same accommodations.
Although stories like Romano's aren't as common as they used to be back in the days when online travel agencies used fax machines -- yes, the kind that are known to run out of paper from time to time -- to confirm hotel reservations, they experience a surge during the summer, when occupancy levels are at annual highs.
After weeks of trying to secure a refund from the Driftwood Inn and HotelPlus, Romano turned to me for help, and I went to work on his case. Jay Desai, a spokesman for the Driftwood Inn, told me that it had reached out to HotelPlus on Romano's behalf, that the company had agreed to issue a check for $138, and that the Driftwood would refund the money to Romano as soon as the hotel received the payment.
Desai said it "almost never" has problems like that, "but we are working our best to get this refund back to him as fast as possible."
Desai also suggests that HotelPlus has generated more than its fair share of complaints. I'd never heard of the company, and a closer examination of the site, combined with the fact that the company never responded to any of my calls or emails, made me skeptical. Certainly, if you have a problem with a HotelPlus booking, the site makes it difficult to contact a real person.
But what happens if you arrive at a hotel or try to check in for a flight this summer only to find that no one has ever heard of you -- or worse, that you have to pay for your reservation again?
Consider Angie Welborn's recent flight from Kona, Hawaii, to Austin, Texas, by way of Honolulu and Los Angeles. She says that a Hawaiian Airlines ticket agent in Kona inadvertently canceled her reservation on her connecting flight. "When we got up to the gate agent in Honolulu and presented our boarding passes, she scanned them and told us that those seats were already taken," remembers Welborn, an attorney based in Austin.
Hawaiian found room for her on the flight, but in middle seats at the back of the aircraft. "It ended up being one of the most miserable flights of my life," she remembers.
In situations like hers, when an airline has made the mistake, passengers have certain rights that they may not be aware of.
Hawaiian's contract of carriage, the legal agreement between Welborn and the airline, would have required it to cover the cost of her meals and accommodations while she waited for the next flight, had it not found a seat for her on her original flight to L.A. Unfortunately, though, the contract doesn't guarantee that she can avoid a torturous center seat.
In some cases, any problems aren't always immediately apparent. For example, when Jennifer Hammitt booked a recent vacation to San Francisco, Calif., through Southwest Vacations, everything seemed to run smoothly. Her tickets were accepted at the airport, and her hotel, the San Francisco Marriott Marquis, took the voucher issued by Southwest Vacations. But when she returned home, she found a surprise on her credit card bill: Marriott had charged her for the hotel, again.
Southwest Vacations wouldn't respond to emails asking about the erroneous billing and insisted that she call, she says.
"I reluctantly called them as requested, and the representative I spoke to was beyond rude," recalls Hammitt, an assessment coordinator who lives in Noblesville, Ind. "Every time I explained it to her, she just got more and more rude. She eventually told me that she refused to look into this because 'There is no way Southwest Vacations made a mistake.' "
Eventually, Hammitt took the matter up with Marriott by email. Turns out that Southwest Vacations, a tour company operated by the Mark Travel Corporation, had made a mistake. It had neglected to pay the hotel bill, she says.
"Then, when Marriott went to print them an invoice, it sent it to me directly instead of Southwest Vacations," she adds. "Marriott fixed the mistake, apologized and put 2,000 rewards points in my account for the trouble."
Experiences like the ones described above offer several important takeaways that may apply to your summer vacation. At every step of the way, and especially when you make your initial reservations, be sure to double-check your dates and look for a confirmation number. If you don't see one, or if you never get a confirmation email, it could be a sign of trouble.
Finding a missing reservation may not be possible right away, but the matter almost always gets resolved. Whether it goes your way depends on whether you've blazed a credible paper trail. All three travelers in this column kept their reservation records and ultimately relied on emails, not phone calls, to fix their problems.
As long as travel is booked by computer, reservations will continue to get lost. Recovering them isn't as hard as it may seem when you're standing at the hotel desk, homeless and not sure what to do next.
"My advice?" says Hammitt, the traveler with the worthless hotel voucher. "Remain calm."
(Christopher Elliott is the author of "Scammed: How to Save Your Money and Find Better Service in a World of Schemes, Swindles, and Shady Deals" (Wiley). He's also the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the co-founder of the Consumer Travel Alliance, a nonprofit organization that advocates for travelers. Read more tips on his blog, elliott.org or email him at email@example.com. Christopher Elliott receives a great deal of reader mail, and though he answers them as quickly as possible, your story may not be published for several months because of a backlog of cases.)
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