A “walking” scam: how hotels profit from overbooking

Are high hotel occupancy rates offering hotels yet another opportunity to secretly profit from you? Consider the practice of “walking” — transferring a guest to another property when the inn is full. Most reputable resorts “walk” their customers to a comparable hotel. But what if the second place costs less than the first, and the property simply pockets the rate difference?

That happens all the time in places like Cancun, Mexico. A hotel routinely accepts more reservations that it has rooms and then sends the overflow visitors to a second-rate motel, telling them they can take it or leave it. What’s more, it rarely offers to adjust the rate, instead giving disgruntled guests hotel vouchers or other forms of credit that are impossible to redeem.

You wouldn’t expect that to happen in the U.S., let alone in an upscale destination like Naples, Fla. But you’d be wrong.

Susan Weiler had such an experience when she reserved a room at a five-star hotel, and she believes it’s part of a larger scheme. She had prepaid $900 a night to stay at a well-known resort, but when she checked in, Weiler was told there was no room for her and that she’d be offered a room at another property.

Here’s an excerpt from her complaint to the first hotel — a letter that, by the way, the hotel has completely ignored:

When I arrived at [the second property] it was obvious that, although the staff was very nice, the hotel not nearly as nice as yours. Then, to add insult to injury, I learned that its rates were not more but indeed much less than yours — more than $150 less per night than I was paying. It became obvious that your hotel was in a position to profit almost $400.

She contacted her online travel agency, which scrambled to find a plausible explanation.

The lies kept piling up. [My agent] told me you had confirmed my reservation with them; you told me you never had a room available, but couldn’t contact me because my agent wouldn’t release my contact information. Then my agent told me that you claimed you had a room but that a guest decided to extend his stay.

Based on the smoothness with which she was processed by the first hotel, and her own experience as a concierge for an upscale resort, Weiler believes she isn’t the first person to whom this has happened. And she’s convinced that unless something is done, she won’t be the last.

No reputable hotel would ever seek to profit from a patron’s inconvenience. In the end, it took us over three hours of our very short vacation to sort out the details and make sure I would be refunded for my $900 reservation, and we still didn’t have a place to stay on a Sunday evening.

I believe Weiler’s story, although I’ve left the name of the hotel and the online agency out of this post because I think it could have happened anywhere. Hotel occupancy rates are near record levels, and this “walking” downgrade scheme is oh-so-tempting to any resort.

If you ever find yourself in a situation similar to Weiler, do a little research before accepting your walking papers. Make sure it’s really a comparable hotel instead of a downgrade. (Upgrades, of course, are fine — who’s going to complain about that?)

If you accept a downgrade, make sure your room rate is adjusted. And remember, your hotel is already paying the second hotel a deeply-discounted courtesy rate, so be sure to factor in the inconvenience of having to move to another property.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at . Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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