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Beware Nonrefundable Hotel Deals

A traveler I know recently reserved a room at a hotel in Florence, Italy, at a discounted—but nonrefundable—price through He thought he had scored a very good deal: good price, good location, good-looking rooms. Good, that is, until he got the confirmation email, which had a notice at the bottom: “Important information: Please note the building has no lift.” All of a sudden, the deal turned into not-so-good. This traveler has a bad back. And the last thing he needed was a two- or three-story staircase schlep, with baggage, to a hotel room. He immediately contacted to cancel, but an agent told him, “Sorry; the hotel refuses to refund a nonrefundable rate.” The agent went on to note that the hotel description page on posted the same notice at the very bottom. He got the same response directly from the hotel.

I checked the page, and the warning was there, as claimed. When I checked the same hotel on Expedia, however, I found no such warning—yet Expedia also offered a nonrefundable rate. The absence of an elevator was not even noted on the pull-down “accessibility” menu. If you book through Expedia, you could be in for a nasty surprise after you arrive.

This little story illustrates a fundamental truth about “nonrefundable” hotel rates: You can never assume you’ll get what you usually expect at a hotel. Instead, you get only what is explicitly promised in the fine print. My friend claims that most other travelers would probably do as he did and not scroll down the entire page to see all of the details. He’s probably right. But the fact remains that he had the opportunity to find the “no elevator” news before he committed, and he failed to do so.

Hotels have no legal requirement to provide any specific facilities and services other than to comply with applicable safety rules and maintain a secure environment. But almost all of you have a cluster of expectations for what you get as part of the room rate:

  • Housekeeping services
  • Air-conditioning in summer, heating in winter
  • In most of the world, nonsmoking rooms
  • Elevators in any building higher than two floors
  • Full-time accessibility to a front desk or equivalent
  • In-room cable or satellite TV
  • Acceptance of major credit cards
  • No-charge Wi-Fi has become a necessity for many travelers

These days, you can pretty much be sure that any 3- or 4-star city hotel will provide all or most of those amenities, anywhere in the world (although you can still expect some charges for Wi-Fi). For that reason, you can feel pretty safe in taking advantage of a nonrefundable discount or buying through an opaque site such as Hotwire or Priceline. Even then, however, before you commit you might want to know about on-site parking, pet acceptance, accessibility, availability of laundry and cleaning, food service, swimming pool, and a lot more.

But expectations change dramatically for smaller inns, B&Bs, and older, smaller hotels, especially in Europe. You often find no elevators, part-time reception desks, no swimming pool, and no TV or Wi-Fi.

If you need a special facility or service, the lessons here are obvious:

  • Always check the complete fine print available on a booking website, and if your need isn’t addressed specifically, check with the website or directly with the hotel before you buy.
  • If possible, check TripAdvisor or some other traveler review site. Although Expedia’s listing didn’t show “no elevator,” several posted traveler reports indicated this information.
  • Be extremely cautious any time you book any hotel you think might differ from the “standard” expectations—and especially one that is obviously “quaint” or quirky.

My own personal rule is even stiffer. I book nonrefundable rooms only at modern, 3- or 4-star city hotels. And I never book a nonrefundable room at a down-market city hotel or quaint inn.

Ed Perkins Seniors on the Go is copyright (c) 2012 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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