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Hotel shell games

What can you do if your tour operator switches hotels on your package tour? One couple recently reported a typical case: They bought a package tour to a well-known beach destination that promised a four-star oceanfront hotel. But before they left home, the tour company notified them that they’d have to go to a different hotel that was substantially less attractive than the original one and more than a quarter mile from the beach. They went ahead, anyhow, and asked for some sort of refund after they got home. Is that the best they could have done?

The answer depends on how you define “best.” If they wanted to continue their plans with the least hassle, it probably was. But they did have alternatives. Here are some basics you need to know if you’re put in this situation.

How it happens

Like problems in Washington, hotel substitutions are generally the result of screw-ups rather than evil intentions. Hotels may oversell their room inventory, figuring on more cancellations than they actually receive, or the hotel may have a contract problem with the tour operator. Whatever the reason, the situation is similar to airline overbooking. No matter how much the tour operator or hotel may want to accommodate you as originally planned, the room you bought simply isn’t there—and there’s not enough time to build a new annex.

Occasionally, you may face a real scam. Many years ago, a hotel chain in a popular beach destination was accused of grossly overselling its only beachfront property and routinely switching travelers to one of its several off-beach properties because of an “unexpected” shortage. I haven’t heard anything like that for a long time, but it could happen.

The worst case of unequal substitution I ever heard about was on a tour to London, many years ago, where an operator sent travelers to a hotel in the seaside resort of Brighton, some 50 miles from London, instead of the promised “central London” hotel location. Not surprisingly, that tour operator folded shortly after this incident—no loss to travelers.

“Equal or better”

Forget the ads and pictures; what you’re entitled to depends on the fine print in the contract. Yes, I know the fine print is hard to read and often hard to understand. But it determines what rights you do and do not have.

Most of the contracts I’ve seen allow a tour operator to substitute a different hotel for the ones cited in the brochure. But those contracts usually specify that the substitute hotel must be of “equal or better quality” or some similar wording. Clearly, in the case at hand, the substitute hotel was not of “equal” quality. So the tour operator’s substitution was in violation of the contract, and the couple involved had every right to ask for some form of compensation.

If you’re caught in a similar situation, you have that same right. Here’s my suggestion about dealing with the problem.

Before you leave

If the tour operator notifies you of a hotel switch before you leave home, you should run, not walk, to your computer and check out the substitute hotel. Probably the best place to start is TripAdvisor, the Internet’s largest database of hotel reviews compiled by ordinary travelers. You can also check with one or two online sites, such as Expedia, that describe the hotels they list in some detail and assign “star” ratings. And, of course, you can log onto a guidebook site such as Fodor’s, another good source of hotel information. However you do it, you can locate plenty of objective information about whether a substitute hotel is really equal, better, or worse.

If you find that the substitute hotel is not “equal or better” to meet your needs and expectations, however you define them—room quality, access to the beach, golf course, whatever—you have three options:

1.) Ask the tour operator for a full and complete refund, then start over looking for last-minute deals that allow you to keep to your original vacation schedule. Or reschedule the original tour, if you can.

2.) Ask the tour operator for a significant price reduction to offset the downgrading of your hotel accommodations. You can come up with a dollar figure by comparing rates through the various hotel websites that list them—and maybe add a few dollars for the hassle and disappointment.

3.) Accept the substitution (and whatever pot-sweeteners the operator might dangle in front of you) and figure on complaining later if your stay turns out to be really bad.

I do not recommend alternative three, however. Once you pay in full and actually take the trip, you severely weaken your position in future negotiations. But if you decide on either alternative one or two, you have to be prepared to walk away from the deal if the operator doesn’t agree to your requests. And that, in turn, means being prepared to head to small claims court if the operator stonewalls your request for a refund or an adjustment.

As is usual in these cases, you stand a better chance of compensation if you’re willing to accept a voucher for a future trip rather than a cash refund. But if you do, take a very close look at the voucher to make sure it doesn’t have so many qualifications and restrictions—seasonal limits, “space available,” and such—that its actual value is much less than what you originally paid.

Unpleasant arrival surprise

The most troublesome switches are the ones that you don’t find out about until you actually arrive at your destination, where the operator’s representative “regretfully” announces it to you and others in the arrival group. As with the pre-trip notification, your first requirement is to find out, somehow, whether the substitute hotel is up to par. If you can, take a look. Buy a local guidebook or find someplace where you can go online. If there are no feasible options, call someone at home and have them check out the situation.

If the substitute hotel looks sub-par, your three options are similar to those for a pre-trip notification:

  • Accept the substitution, but only if the local representative commits (in writing) to a price reduction. If the local representative claims not to have the authority—or if you can’t find a local representative—call the operator’s home office directly. If you used a travel agent, call the agent.
  • Notify the local representative or the home office that you consider the substitute accommodations unacceptable and that, unless the problem is fixed immediately, you plan to find a suitable accommodation on your own and bill the operator for it.
  • Accept the substitution and plan to complain after you return. Again, I don’t recommend this option.

Make—and live with—your decision

Above all, you want to avoid a vacation experience ruined by continued frustration with less-than-expected accommodations. Either accept the substitution with grace (or a price reduction), or go somewhere else. And either way, you may be looking for a fight.

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