Unnatural disaster: What to do when your hotel doesn’t have room

The deadly storms that left large swaths of the East Coast without power just before the Fourth of July holiday provided an uncomfortable lesson to hotel guests like Ken White: Always call to confirm your reservation — especially when the place you’re visiting is reeling from a natural disaster.

White lives in Charlottesville, Va., an area that was hit hard by the hurricane-force winds. Many residents were struggling to stay cool in record-breaking heat, and checking into an air-conditioned hotel nearby was a popular solution.

Maybe a little too popular.

“I made reservations at the Hilton Garden Inn for Sunday and Monday night,” says White, a college marketing professor. “My credit card was charged, and I was given a confirmation number by Expedia.”

But when he tried to pick up his room key on Sunday, a hotel representative said that White didn’t have a reservation and turned him away. The Hilton, like all the other hotels in the area, was fully booked.

Getting to the bottom of White’s reservation problem was only slightly easier than finding a hotel room in Charlottesville after a power outage, it turns out. For starters, White sent me a complaint and then vanished. Repeated phone calls and e-mails to him went unanswered, which can happen during a popular vacation week — or when portions of Charlottesville remain without electricity for more than a week.

An Expedia spokeswoman said that the online travel agency wouldn’t comment on White’s case unless I provided a confirmation number. I contacted Hilton for a statement, and it, too, refused to say anything at the corporate level, deferring instead to the hotel White had tried to stay in, which it said is a franchise property.

Finally, I reached Eric Pfister, the general manager at the Hilton Garden Inn in Charlottesville. He confirmed the details of White’s story. Pfister said that on Saturday, June 30, in the wake of the massive thunderstorms, his 124-room hotel quickly sold out.

The Hilton Garden Inn connects to Expedia through an electronic reservations system, and it also receives faxes from the online travel agency as a backup. Hilton’s system was showing the property as fully booked for Sunday and Monday night, but for some reason, Expedia didn’t get the message. It continued to confirm reservations and send backup faxes, which were piling up fast.

“It was a bad situation,” Pfister says.

Hilton tried to contact Expedia, asking it to stop accepting new reservations. Eventually it did, but the hotel had to turn away nine guests the next day, including White.

It’s unclear whether this was an isolated problem or whether other Hilton properties working with Expedia were affected by the reservations system glitch. With this new information from Hilton, I again asked Expedia whether it could help me understand how these surplus reservations happened. It declined to comment.

When a hotel can’t accommodate a guest because it’s overbooked, the standard industry practice is to send that person to a comparable hotel and to pay for the first night’s reservation. That would have happened to White and the other displaced customers, except that there were no available rooms in the region.

In such cases, a hotel’s options are limited, says Stephen Barth, a professor of hospitality law at the University of Houston and founder of the Web site HospitalityLawyer.com. A property can still accommodate a guest by setting up a rollaway bed in the lobby, which sometimes happens during a natural disaster. It can also rent rooms in eight-hour shifts, giving guests a chance to freshen up, or it can allow them to use the showers at the pool.

“Overbookings like this tend to happen at large events, like the Super Bowl or Formula 1,” Barth says. “They’re usually caused by guests overstaying their reservations, but they can also happen after a natural disaster, like a hurricane on an island with a limited number of hotel rooms.”

The best way to avoid being turned away, he says, is to take a couple of preventive measures. White could have sidestepped the situation by booking directly through the Hilton Web site or by calling its reservations number. (White’s confirmation contained an Expedia confirmation but didn’t have a corresponding confirmation from Hilton, according to Pfister.)

Also, Barth says, “always contact the hotel and confirm the reservation.” That’s particularly important when you’re booking through a third party, such as an online travel agency. When your stay falls during a major event — a college homecoming, a large convention or even a big storm, all of which can affect hotel occupancy rates — double-checking is a must.

Had White called the Hilton Garden Inn, he would have known that he didn’t have a room, and he could have phoned Expedia to re-book him elsewhere or made other plans.

Making matters worse, the hotel doesn’t even know which customers were turned away. Pfister says that Expedia didn’t give it the guests’ names, so he’s unable to contact them to apologize and make it right. Which is exactly what he says he wants to do.

“We feel bad,” he says. “We don’t like to turn guests away.”

Pfister says he hopes that White and the others who didn’t have a place to sleep on Sunday night will contact him directly. He promises that he’ll do whatever he can to make it up to them.

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 chris@elliott.org. Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

More Posts - Website - Twitter - Facebook - LinkedIn - Google Plus

  • lost_in_travel

    Tough situation – but it sounds like the Hilton Garden Inn wants to apologize for a situation they really did not create.  At least Ken White had a home to go back to – albeit with no electricity. 

    I hope only nine people respond to Pfister, it would really say something about scam artists if many more reply.

    By the way, what happened to the Expedia credit card charge – was it refunded by Expedia? 

  • rgoltsch

    Expedia has always tried to make us think that they are a travel agency.  Situations like this prove that they are not.  A real travel agency would have been there with the client making things right and finding them something, somewhere to sleep.Sites like Expedia want to charge customers money for a service…and when things go wrong, don’t back up that service promise with real assistance.

    Over and over again we hear from writers such as Chris telling us to confirm our reservation with the actual provider….doing the legwork a travel agent would do for us. 

    And for the record, I am an experienced business traveler……not a travel agent

  • http://elliott.org Christopher Elliott

    Expedia refuses to comment. I tried repeatedly to get it to talk. I’m a little disappointed by its refusal to say anything about this issue.

  • Susan Fox

    I’m done using any of those third party sites and do my bookings now directly with the airline, hotels and car rental agencies. Expedia’s non-response in this case just confirms the wisdom of doing so.

  • TonyA_says

    Expedia, Travelocity and other OTA sites are D-I-Y (do it yourself) travel sites; while a professional travel agent would do the legwork for you (so they may charge a fee).

  • Bernard Rappoport

    This is the 110th reason why nobody should book with Expedia. Their refusal to comment says all we need to know about their incompetence, negligence, corporate greed, and unethical business culture.  Dara Khosrowshahi, shame on you. You exemplify the sanctimonius, customer-be-damned attitude of your mentor, Bill Gates. Why hasn’t he responded, perhaps crying because the way TD Canada Trust has been the closing the accounts of his compatriots?  Now you know how being treated like crap is like, Dara, you’re getting a taste of your own medicine. Hilton is standing up to the plate on this one, Expedia and the Gates New World Order needs to be taught the sternest of marketplace lessons…a radical shift in booking patterns leading to Chapter 11.

  • Michael__K

    It’s remarkable to me that in 2012 OTA’s are sending hotels reservations by paper faxes. If multiple OTA’s are faxing these reservations in parallel, what mechanism is there to prevent overbookings?

    I’ve had similar experiences a few times checking in with a Priceline reservation and being told that the hotel had no record of it.   In each case, Priceline told me the reservation was faxed to the hotel.  I always got a room eventually.  Not always at the original hotel, but I did get the first night free whenever I was walked.  It was nonetheless an unwelcome 30 to 90 minute hassle (between time spent on hold with Priceline and time spent waiting for Priceline and the hotel to get on the same page).

  • MarkKelling

    Yet another reason to book directly instead of through some internet consolidator.

    If I was attempting to get a hotel room or rental car in an area that was in the middle of a natural disaster, I sure would have called them directly to verify that not only they got my request but that they would also be able to fill my request.  Every time there is a hurricane threat to Houston (where I travel to a lot) everyone rents a car and leaves town (or the rental companies move their vehicles to a safer location) and it is a couple weeks before the rental car inventory gets back to normal.  This means there are not always cars for those wanting them.  Same with hotel rooms (well, the hotels aren’t moving the rooms elsewhere, but they are occupied by people who can’t get back home).

    I can’t believe that reservations are still faxed to hotels that are part of a major chain or part of any online reservation system.  I thought everyone would book electronically these days removing the need for any papers to change hands.  It is easy to see how a hotel could get overbooked in this situation.  They might only have a dozen rooms available, but receive 30 – 40 faxed reservation requests from agencies resulting in a lot of disappointed arriving guests especially when the booking agent never lets them know no actual confirmation from the property was provided.

  • MarkieA

    Question about a comment you made, Chris. You said that, sometimes during natural disasters, hotels will book rooms for 8 hours at a time. I’m curious, in your experience, do they charge 1/3 of the daily rate when they do this? Or do they tend to take advantage of the situation and charge the full daily rate – or more?

  • Raven_Altosk

    So did Scampedia give him his money back?

    I’m confused…the article says his card was charged…but…what happened to that money?

    Just another reason to avoid third party sites…especially when they refuse to answer questions about their issues. Doesn’t give the consumers a warm and fuzzy feeling.

  • AAmerican1

    Another example IMO why it is better to deal with either the hotel website or directly with the property than using third party consolidators.

  • TonyA_says

     LOL, Scampedia !!!

  • TonyA_says

    Seriously though … Re: “My credit card was charged, and I was given a confirmation number by Expedia.”

    This is what makes this smell a bit like a fraud. If some takes my money, I expect a room.

  • http://elliott.org Christopher Elliott

    I was shocked by the paper fax detail, too. 

  • http://elliott.org Christopher Elliott

    I didn’t get into that in the story. From my personal experience, the room rate would be adjusted based on the length of your stay. I once checked into a hotel at 2 a.m. after a long flight and checked out the next morning at 8 a.m., and was charged a half-day rate.

  • http://elliott.org Christopher Elliott

    Expedia won’t say, and I haven’t been able to reach the guest. I’ve left numerous voice mails and sent him several emails. I think he’s either on vacation or still without power.

  • Jeff Shelby

    Had a very similar situation occur last summer in Austin with Hotels.com. Got to the property I’d booked and they were full, they’d tried to contact Hotels.com to let them know (two other families were in same situation), etc.

    The difference was that Hotels.com was fabulous.  Took about fifteen minutes on the phone, but they were incredibly apologetic, moved us about five minutes away to another hotel, which was an upgrade from original hotel, and sent me a $100 voucher that was good for a year.  A customer service rep also followed up about two days later to again apologize and make sure that everything had worked out.

    I’m not a huge fan of third party booking sites – I’d used it on a lark for that trip – but I was impressed by their response to the problem.  It’s incredibly frustrating to see Expedia run and hide.

  • jerryatric

    Lives in the same city yet goes through Expedia. How much did he save? Probably only a couple of $ – if that. AGAIN I always go direct, & check out online companies as well. In most cases the savings difference is not worth the hassle & I end up booking direct. I get the name of the person, confirmation number & almost have never had a problem. I do the same with car rentals & airlines. And if there is a problem explaining it to the front desk in a precise, friendly manner gets it cleared up in a hurry
    Doing business with any of these online  agencies is not worth it.

  • TonyA_says

    Perhaps there is something more to this story and it might be important to readers of your site.
    The Hilton Garden Inn at Charlottesville,VA is an Expedia Special Rate (ESR) property . That means the hotel participates in Expedia’s Net Rate program, where it gives Expedia a deeply discounted net price (a big percentage off the Best Available Rate) and then Expedia marks it up when it sells to the public. You can see from the attached pic that Expedia sells a discounted rate for this hotel, however that rate is prepaid.

    So now the $64K question is what about room inventory allocation ???
    I suppose that as part of the contract with Expedia, the hotel would allocate a certain amount of rooms for Expedia.

    Normally room reservations are sent to the hotel via a GDS. The hotel’s reservation system can easily  display room availability and (automatically) confirm reservations. Expedia also offers an alternative way for hotels to hook up with them using Expedia Quick Connect. In their Best Practices section, they state:

    If Expedia QuickConnect® functionality is down, bookings will revert to fax or email and availability and rates can be manually updated on the Extranet until the issue is corrected.

    But what happens when there is a power [or network] blackout and the hotel’s reservation system is down? Can Expedia keep on selling prepaid rooms assuming they have a “guaranteed” room allocation from the hotel? Assuming Expedia keeps on sending faxes, isn’t that one-way communication and still requires some acknowledgment from the hotel that rooms are still available? If that is the case, then what exactly are customers pre-paying Expedia for, if they can’t be sure they have a room?

    Did Expedia return the OP’s money?

  • bodega3

    Inventory on OTA’s IS NOT live.  Between the time they sell the rate, in a situation like a disaster where local are looking for accommodation, the lax in time can affect your confirmation.  Just like when you book your air and get a message back. 

    I know for fact, that in disaster situations, most hotels give huge discounts to locals.  Why the heck a local wouldn’t call the hotel directly raises huge questions for me. 

  • TonyA_says

    There is NO DIFFERENCE. Hotels.com is an Expedia brand and owned company. :-)

  • bodega3

    He probably didn’t save.  Local hotels often give huge discounts to locals during disaster situations.  People who rely on the internet are lemmings. 

  • TonyA_says

    Lives in the same city yet goes through Expedia – EXACTLY !!!
    Charlottesville ain’t that big. It is a pretty university [of Virginia] town.
    He must have gone for the cheaper PRE-PAID non-refundable rate offered by Expedia.

  • scapel

    I recently accidently booke a hotel in a small town. I just called the number on the google site. It was a expedia or something like that. When I got to the hotel I found that I was paying $20 more for the hotel room. My fault for not calling information for the hotel number and booking direct. Sometimes it is difficult to find a phone number for a hotel in foreign countries. These booking agencies intercept the phone numbers.

  • Nikki

    I don’t know who holds the blame, really… the hotel itself could not be to blame – there would have been no way to transmit their inventory to Central Reservations, not without electricity. – if they phoned their inventory in to central reservations, it should have updated across the board (including opaque reservations). 

    Expedia could have kept up with the weather, right? – well, this kind of thing WILL happen when the call centers are located outside the country.

    At any rate, Expedia should refund this guest… it’s pretty much guaranteed that when the property is asked whether or not Expedia would be charged, the property would have said no, considering their circumstances.

  • andrelot

    Dealing with the hotel website? Probably. Dealing by phone? No way. Phone reservations are the worst possible, there are no confirmation of receipt whatsoever.

  • http://ladylighttravel.com/ LadyLightTravel

    I would say that the refusal to talk is a statement unto itself, don’t you think?  A reputable TA would at least issue a statement saying “we’re investigating.”

  • y_p_w

    All depends.  I remember booking a room while on the road via the Holiday hotel 800 number.  The operator asked for my email address so I could receive confirmation if I got to a place with internet access and for my permanent records. To this day I still have the email with confirmation number and rate.

    It was odd though. The operator offered me a voucher for $20 dining credit for an additional $8, and I took it. It seemed to make sense to me. When I arrived, the desk clerk said the deal wasn’t good, but to make it up to me I just got the voucher for free.  Personally I thought that just sticking to the deal would have made for sense for the hotel, but I just rolled with it.

  • AAmerican1


    I have email confirmations from 3 hotels I made reservations with for this month & August. All were made direct with hotel property by phone.

  • y_p_w

    I don’t know about paper FAXes. Those are rather antiquated.  A lot of companies are moving to fully electronic imaging sent via FAX. My computers have FAX capabilities to send and electronic document via FAX protocol.  No paper is actually scanned, and even if printed after receipt the copy is nice and sharp without those funky aliasing artifacts from scanning a real piece of paper. Most large corporate FAX systems are dumped into data storage rather than paper. They don’t have to worry about running out of paper and the electronic storage makes for a very good archive.

    I do remember arriving once at a hotel that I got via Priceline.  Their computer systems were malfunctioning and they couldn’t bring anything up.  However, I saw that they had a paper file, and the desk clerk said that they updated it with individual printouts for open reservations every hour.  I think they also checked for cancelled reservations and marked those in the file too.  He pulled out my reservation file and had me sign it directly.  I think that’s normally what they do.

    I could imagine a combination of electronic bookings that aren’t being properly transmitted due to down systems, in combination with walk-up customers could make things interesting if it gets overbooked.

  • y_p_w

    Expedia, Orbitz, Travelocity, Hotels.com, etc don’t really get the best rates in my experience.  I always find nearly identical rates on the hotel corporate website or sometimes even better with AAA or other rates.

    The only time I find I get a better deal is when I book on Priceline as an opaque booking.  I’ve had considerably more good results than middling results.  Nothing I’ve experienced had been totally unacceptable though.  It can get interesting in some areas where there’s one crappy old hotel that still is a “three star”, but frankly not as good an experience and/or a poorer location compared to some of the newer 2-1/2 star hotels.  It can set off bells when I see it says, “Good news, we were able to upgrade you a half star.”

  • http://twitter.com/guy999 guy999

    sounds like he reserved and paid, so if he hadn’t shown up they would get to keep his money, so in this case, they need to pay him the amount of money his reservation would have cost.

    Turnabout is far play

  • MarkKelling

    When I said “papers” I meant the documents that were faxed whether they were physical pages or the electronic form.  And yes, most faxes these days are dumped into electronic storage so there is no actual paper involved.  

    Still, someone on the receiving end has to know to look for those faxes and enter them into their reservation system which is still a manual process even if all it takes is a couple clicks of the computer mouse.  

    Any system that is not integrated, automatic, and fully electronic requiring a person to do something within the process flow is open to failure. 

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_OEPJGQPIEB75YYDE5CJY6R3VFE Carver Clark Farrow II

     What question does it raise?

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_OEPJGQPIEB75YYDE5CJY6R3VFE Carver Clark Farrow II

     Doesn’t sound like fraud to me, more likely just incompetence stemming from a antiquated system, i.e. paper faxes

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_OEPJGQPIEB75YYDE5CJY6R3VFE Carver Clark Farrow II

     Surprising, companies within the same hotel brand can be very different.  I mean Marriott owns/manages both the Ritz-Carlton and the Fairfield Hotels

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_OEPJGQPIEB75YYDE5CJY6R3VFE Carver Clark Farrow II

     Help me out. I’ve never used Expedia.  What’s the difference between a local using Expedia and a non-local?

  • TonyA_says

    he could have made a local call or swing by the hotel. that is a small town.

  • TonyA_says

    I wanna blame Expedia. If a travel agent attempts to sell rooms using a GDS and the hotels res system is down, the GDS will not display available rooms. So, the agent does not sell the hotel and moves on to the next hotel.

    But reading the process used by Expedia, they will still sell the rooms and even collect prepaid money even without confirmation from the hotel. From what I read, they will fax the reservations over and expect the hotel to log on or email any status updates. I guess that is hard to do when a storm has ripped through the town.

  • BMG4ME

    I object to Barth’s comment that the customer should always call the hotel to make sure that the reservation is in order.  The room is guaranteed with a credit card.  It is the hotel’s responsibility to try to contact the customer if they no longer can give them a room – and also they have a responsibility to find them a new room and provide transportation there.   Hotels can do what they like.  If a customer does not honor a reservation they get charged a night’s stay.  If the hotel does not honor it, they legally have to do nothing.

  • bodega3

    The main one is why would he go to a OTA for a local hotel before calling the hotel during a disaster situation?  Hurricane winds knock power out, messages don’t get through.  Hotels offer discounted rates at time like these, but not online as you need to be a local to get them.  Online and calling the toll free number doesn’t get the hotel the confirmation number right away.  They don’t see the reservation, they sell out the rooms due to front desk demands. 

  • bodega3

    Expedia will not have a local rate listed.  Many hotels give locals discounts, but you have to contact the hotel directly to get it and show an ID at time of checkin. 

  • Michael__K

    Why does a hotel enter into an agreement that allows an OTA to fax it reservation after reservation without confirmation or controls to ensure availability?  

    Especially in the case of Priceline, where customers placing opaque bids often have to check back later for the outcome.  If an automated channel exists for verifying live inventory, then I see no reason why this step wouldn’t be taken during that wait.

    I’ve had several experiences which demonstrate that this problem is not limited to disaster situations. 

    If as @TonyA_says:disqus suggests, the OTA acquires it’s own dedicated inventory from the hotel, then it seems the hotel carries some responsibility.  If the hotel decides to revoke the OTA’s dedicated inventory and re-assign it to others — without first reaching the OTA and ensuring that this dedicated inventory is taken offline from the OTA’s systems — then more snafus like the OP’s are a predictable outcome.

  • TonyA_says

    michael, it depends on the terms of the agreement. We do not know what that property signed with Expedia. However, the manager said they told Expedia to stop booking. So something is wrong with Expedia’s process. Too asynchronous.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_OEPJGQPIEB75YYDE5CJY6R3VFE Carver Clark Farrow II

     Why would he know any of that?

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_OEPJGQPIEB75YYDE5CJY6R3VFE Carver Clark Farrow II

     But why would he? If the computer system accepts the reservation what would put him on notice that it wasn’t a done deal?  Why drive across town when you believe, albeit erroneously, that you have a confirmation.

  • TonyA_says

    Perfect timing. It is almost 11PM here in Stamford CT and we just got power back after a nasty storm this afternoon. It is usual and customary for locals to call our hotels and book a room during storms since most homes north of the parkway are on wells and have no water during blackouts. If you try to book online you have no guarantee you will actually get a hotel confirmation. Your OTA might give you THEIR reservation number but you don’t know if that was acknowledged and confirmed by the hotel itself.

  • bodega3

    Unless you live under a rock and don’t listen to local news or read local news, you would know this. 

  • lorcha

    When I screw something up in epic fashion, I don’t like to talk about it, either.