Duncan Addison/Shutterstock

Duncan Addison/Shutterstock

Mercy.

It’s not a word you hear very often in business. It’s something Tami Alloway desperately needed when she contacted Priceline recently to cancel a nonrefundable reservation at the Hawthorn Suites in Charleston.

Alloway, a nurse from Kansas City, had every intention of honoring the reservation when she made it last summer. But then something happened.

“Totally unexpectedly, my sister’s children were removed from their home and taken into state custody,” she told me. “I was awarded foster care for all three of them and they have been with me since then.”

Her sister’s kids will be with her until the end of the school year. Which brings us to that hotel reservation in South Carolina. In order to find the best price, Alloway clicked on Priceline.com, a site with great rates but super-strict refundability rules.

Alloway couldn’t take the kids out of school, so she had to cancel her reservation. But there’s just one problem — her reservation wasn’t cancel-able.

“I was told there is no refund, even under extreme situations,” she says. “I’ve spoken to upper management and emailed the executive offices, but their response is that the policy states that I am not allowed to change or cancel my reservation and will still be charged the full reservation amount.”

Alloway can’t afford that.

“My finances have been greatly affected by accepting the foster role, because I am family foster care, not a licensed foster care provider, so I receive very minimal financial support from the state system. The bill for the week for the hotel room is $772, and I can’t afford another $800 on top of the expenditures I have incurred from caring for the children,” she says. “Can you help me to get Priceline to reconsider and allow me to cancel my reservation due to extreme extenuating circumstances?”

At about this time in the story, half the readers are probably saying: “Serves her right for booking her hotel on Priceline.” And the other half: “She deserves a break. Go help her, Chris!”

Enabling ignorant consumers?

For the last few months, my site has been under almost constant attack from a small group of readers who want to end my consumer advocacy practice. They lurk on blogs and forums for frequent travelers and lash out at me whenever I persuade a company to bend a rule for a customer who is down on her luck, like Alloway.

They believe that by helping customers in need, I’m not only perpetuating the ignorance of consumers, I’m also engaged in a kind of high-tech extortion. Just the act of contacting a company is an implied threat, they say. A company has no choice but to bend over unless it wants bad publicity.

But the truth is far more complicated. These know-it-alls don’t really care about the companies, and they care even less about you, the consumer. Instead, they’re boiling mad at me for calling them out for their morally bankrupt behavior, like churning the balance on their credit cards to generate more miles, booking mistake fares and spending their employers’ money for “mileage runs” designed to maintain their elite status with an airline or hotel.

They believe the fastest way to shut me up is with an endless barrage of angry personal attacks and to claim what I’m doing — helping consumers — is unethical.

One day, maybe you’ll want a rule bent

Actually, they aren’t alone. A larger “rules are rules” crowd is aligned with this tiny group of extreme, entitled elite-level customers who troll the comments on my site. It’s comprised of travel industry employees, lawyers and by-the-book consumers who just think it’s unfair that someone like me might consider jumping in and helping Alloway, or someone like her.

They like the fact that there’s someone to help advocate for consumers in real need, but what part of nonrefundable didn’t Alloway understand, they would ask. And they would be right — she prepaid for her hotel room knowing full well there would be no refund under any circumstances.

I understand their arguments, but I don’t agree with them. My mission isn’t to protect a hotel company’s revenue by ensuring it gets Alloway’s money. It isn’t even to ensure that the travel industry is fair, which, by the way, is an impossible task.

My mission is to help travelers in need.

You may not think Alloway deserves to have a refundability rule waived for her, but one day you might find yourself in a similar predicament. You might have made a reservation with every intention of using it, and maybe you didn’t buy a travel insurance policy and then something happened and you had to change your plans.

You never know.

Do you really want me to be the guy to tell you: I can’t help? Do you want me to refuse to do anything because it wouldn’t be fair to everyone else?

Time to get busy

I didn’t think twice about coming to Alloway’s aid, even though I knew the haters and the rule-obsessed readers would protest. I asked Priceline if it could take another a look at her case. My exact words to the company, if you must know, were as non-threatening as I could manage: “just passing this one along,” I said, asking a company rep what I should tell Alloway.

My Priceline contact, who I’ve known for years and has never had a problem telling me “no” — ever — responded quickly. He said the online agency had contacted the hotel and advocated on its customers’ behalf.

She would not be charged for her hotel.

“I am so thankful for the assistance you provided,” Alloway said, when informed of the refund. “I can’t believe it was resolved so quickly, and I know it is due to your skill in working as an advocate for consumers. The resolution of being able to have the reservation canceled so quickly far exceeded my expectations.”

I would only correct her on one small point: I wouldn’t attribute it to my skill, but to the compassion of the folks at Priceline, who pushed the hotel for the refund. Also, maybe a hat tip to a quality my family complains about regularly: my unyielding obstinacy, which makes my critics so easy to ignore.

Let me add one thing: To those of you who think I should be lecturing to consumers that non-refundable means non-refundable and who cry foul when I help a customer in need, I say: try a little mercy. Because what goes around comes around.

And to those of you trying to silence one of the last remaining consumer advocates in this industry because you don’t want anyone to know the truth about your own ethically-challenged behavior, I say: You ought to be ashamed of yourselves.

Should Priceline have helped Tami Alloway get a refund?

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