Hotel or Car Rental Overbooked? Here's What You Can Do

Airlines aren't the only travel suppliers that sometimes can't accommodate you even when you have a reservation. Hotels and car-rental companies, too, can sometimes fail to honor a reservation, but unlike airlines, they are under no specific obligation to compensate you. You need to be ready in case you get caught.

Hotels can fail to honor a reservation for several reasons—like airlines, some of them overbook, but in addition, guests already in the hotel can stay longer than expected. The obvious problems arise when a hotel miscalculates the availability of rooms for the time of your reservation. When that happens, something has to give: A hotel can't quickly build a few more rooms for you to occupy. Despite the best intentions, the hotel is simply unable to honor your reservation.

What are your "rights" when you arrive at the desk to find no room? As far as I can tell, at least in most of the country, you have no specific rights, as you do with an overbooked airline flight. Normal industry practice is to try to fix the problem:

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  • If a hotel has rooms, but in a different price or location category than specified in your reservation, normal practice is to upgrade you to a bigger/better room. If only a lesser room is available, the hotel should (1) offer you the lesser room plus some sort of price adjustment or other compensation and (2) agree to move you to the original category of room as quickly as possible.
  • If a hotel is totally sold out, normal practice is to "walk" you to another hotel of "equal or better" quality and pick up the cost of your first night's stay and your cab fare to the alternate hotel.

Although some sources claim upgrading and "walking" are enforceable legal requirements, I haven't been able to locate any specific laws or regulations—they're just industry practice, honored sometimes but not always. And in any case, "walking" may not, in the words of tort law, "make you whole." Moreover, every time I've been walked, the substitute hotel was not "equal or better" than the original. And I've heard from readers of cases where a downtown hotel offered a substitute room in a remote suburban location.

Car-rental companies, too, often can't honor a reservation. And, again, there are no legal requirements. As with hotels, industry practice is (1) to upgrade you to a more expensive category of car—although you might not appreciate getting a gas guzzler instead of the economy model you wanted—or (2) to arrange a rental from another company and pay any rate difference. But in my experiences, rental companies often try to stall and ask you to wait around the office for a "short time" until customers return cars.

Clearly, if a hotel or rental car company's fix is inadequate, your official recourse is to contract law. Your reservation is a contract, which the hotel is unable to fill. You can sue for damages in small-claims or regular court. But a suit next month doesn't solve a problem right now. My suggestions:

  • Accept the fix if it's at all reasonable. If the offer falls significantly short of your expectation, ask for some extra compensation.
  • But don't accept a bad fix. If the first offer is an unacceptable alternative, negotiate for something better. If the clerk or agent says, "take it or leave it," ask for a manager.
  • If you can, get on your cell phone, find your own alternative, then ask the supplier to arrange it.
  • In the worst case, pay for your own alternative, planning to submit a formal complaint—and possible small-claims-court suit—after you return.

You're fundamentally in the right, in contract law, and should prevail in a formal legal action. But you also need a room or car now, not a verdict in six months. You have to set the balance.

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

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