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What Customer Rights Do Hotel Guests Have? Not Many.

When someone raises the question of travel rights, the focus is usually on airlines and not hotel guest rights. That’s probably because air travelers have lots of rights, many guaranteed by government regulations and airline contracts. Moreover, key government-enforced rights have teeth: Failure to honor your rights often leads to some combination of mandated traveler repayments and airline-paid fines. But on a typical trip, you spend more on a hotel, resort, or at vacation rental than airfare. So what are your resort, vacation rental, or hotel guest rights?

Your (Limited) Hotel Guest Rights

Few people have much to say about hotel guest rights—mainly because they’re so limited. Here’s what you can (and can’t) depend on as a hotel guest.

A Room

A room reservation—even when it’s not prepaid—is a contract, which a hotel is legally obligated to honor. Occasionally, however, when you arrive to claim your reservation, the room you chose might not be available. At that point, usually, the hotel will give you any room at all, even if it’s a more expensive suite. The worst-case (and rarest) scenario is that the hotel is 100 percent occupied and, contract or not, can’t simply give you a room. So your legal right to a room becomes moot, at least in the immediate. You could sue for breach of contract, but that won’t solve your immediate accommodations problem. You’re better off asking the hotel to pay for your stay elsewhere.

When a hotel can’t honor a reservation, it’s legally obligated to “walk” you—or arrange for accommodations of equal or better grade. In addition to the stay, they should also pay for your transportation to the other hotel. I’ve never seen an actual law or regulation that ensures this—instead, it seems to be an industry custom with no legal footing.

The hotel can’t suddenly create another room or toss some other guest out to give you a room, so your best strategy is to find an acceptable solution for yourself, and to present it to them. Get on your laptop or phone and find an acceptable (or better) room nearby. It’s usually easier for an agent to say “yes” to a specific option than to respond effectively to a whiney complaint. I’ve been walked a few times, invariably to a less desirable hotel. But a room in a less desirable hotel beats no room at all.

Not as Advertised

What do you do when someone fires up a jackhammer under your hotel room window at 8:00 a.m.? Or when that “luxury” condo with a “spectacular ocean view” you prepaid for turns out to have a broken air-conditioner, dirty sheets, and a window that overlooks a loading dock? In many ways, disappointment is trickier than the open-and-shut “no room” situation.

Here again, whatever hotel guest rights you have are governed by your reservation or rental contract, which may be ambiguous about misrepresentation. When whatever legal rights you might have do not solve the immediate problem, you have three alternatives:

  • If the problem is relatively minor enough that you’re willing to stay at the property, ask the manager to fix the problem or to move you to a different room. If they can’t, they may be able to adjust your rate or to throw in some freebies. But know that if you do stay, the hotel or owner can later counter that the problem couldn’t have been that bad because you stayed—and further action will probably be difficult.
  • If the problem is severe enough to ruin your stay, ask the onsite representative to fix the problem within 24 hours or to find you acceptable alternative accommodations. Don’t let the situation drag on for days.
  • If the representative can’t or won’t fix the problem promptly, walk away—don’t stay more than one night. Find a room elsewhere, and start the process to request a refund for the original amount right away. With vacation rentals, initiate whatever process the rental channel you used offers: HomeAway and TripAdvisor Vacation Rentals, two giants in the field, both offer guarantee rentals against some major risks and post instructions about dealing with misrepresentation or inaccessibility. (Editor’s Note: TripAdvisor Vacation Rentals is part of TripAdvisor Media Group, SmarterTravel’s parent company.)

Safety and Security

Although hotel responsibilities are generally established by state and local law (not federal), most hotels operate under “standard of care” requirements. That means they’re legally obligated to provide a safe environment, adequate heating, lighting, security, etc. Laws can be a bit ambiguous about a hotel’s responsibility to your possessions: Many hospitality laws say that if a hotel provides onsite safe storage, it isn’t otherwise responsible for theft of valuables from your room. I’ve seen some pretty murky discussions of this hotel guest right.

Disabled Travelers

Hotels in the U.S. and many other countries are also required to comply with various regulations regarding provisions for disabled travelers—which, as far as I can tell, are typically honored across most of the developed world. However, vacation rentals and other non-traditional accommodations aren’t required to adhere to a similar standard.

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Consumer advocate Ed Perkins has been writing about travel for more than three decades. The founding editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter, he continues to inform travelers and fight consumer abuse (including hotel guest rights) every day at SmarterTravel. 

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