Are Some Hotels Fining Guests Who Leave Bad Reviews?

Travel ombudsman Christopher Elliott and e-columnist David Rowell, "The Travel Insider," recently reported on a new and very worrisome trend: punishing you for posting a bad hotel or vacation-rental review on our sister site TripAdvisor, other traveler-review sites, or the site of a rental agency such as VRBO. This punishment takes at least two forms:

  • Charging your credit card a "fine" or deducting the amount from a deposit refund you're due if you post such a review.
  • Blacklisting you as a future guest.

How can these folks get away with charging you for a bad review? Apparently, some rental and occupancy contracts contain fine print that as a condition of the rental, you agree not to publish a "disparaging" review or violate a "confidentiality" agreement by posting a bad review. If you do post, you're in violation of the contract, and the property owner/manager proceeds to charge you a fee of some sort for violating that contract. And as long as the owner/manager has your credit card data or still has your refundable deposit, you can't prevent such a deduction. As to whether such an assessment would stand up in any court is a different question, but if you have to go that far, you're in for a lot of hassle.

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Over the years, some property and hotel owners and managers have been beating the drums against online review posts by individual travelers. They cite a laundry list of dire consequences: Some guests use the threat of a bad review as leverage to get some sort of rebate or special treatment, traveler reports may reveal details that invite theft or threaten security, some bad reviews may be the result of wildly exaggerated expectations, some may be the result of a personal argument, and some may be flat-out false. Moreover, they say, one bad review can wipe out the effect of a thousand good ones. And they say you're being unfair if you air a gripe to the world before you first try to work it out with the owner. Certainly, some of these worries are legitimate.

On the other hand, say consumer advocates, nobody should be able to censor honest consumer comments. And certainly many rental properties and hotels are, in fact, guilty of failing to provide what they promise or providing shabby or below-par accommodations or service. I have to confess to belonging to the second camp.

Regardless of right or wrong, the practice of nondisparagement clauses in contracts seems to be spreading, so the obvious question is how you can avoid getting stung. Here are some suggestions:

  • Look over the fine print in a rental contract carefully, and if you see an objectionable censorship clause, refuse to sign and find a property that won't try to censor you.
  • If you have a specific complaint—as opposed to just a low overall opinion—by all means try to sort it out with the owner or manager before you make it public.
  • If you decide to write a bad review, wait until you get your deposit back before you post it.

Is this problem commonplace? A TripAdvisor spokesperson said that folks there were not aware of any places that actually went after people who posted bad reviews. But obviously at least some have.

As to whether you can really trust online reviews, I have no doubt that property owners and managers are correct when they claim that some folks try to manipulate online review sites—both favorably and unfavorably. Elliott even refers to "savvy online reputation-management operatives" who are apparently making a business out of trying to manipulate online reviews. Here, the best defense is in numbers: As in so many cases, it's not a bad idea to throw out both the best and the worst and draw your conclusions from the middle range.

Hotel blacklists, I suspect, are less of a problem. If "Hotel A" says it doesn't want you, there are plenty of "Hotel B" options from which to choose.

Ed Perkins on Travel is copyright (c) 2012 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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