Whatever happened to mercy?

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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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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  • http://www.facebook.com/CarverFarrow Carver Clark Farrow

    I have to disagree. Plans change but if the discount is substantial then overtime it maybe worth it; depends on individual. It’s not worth it for my travel plans but for someone else it may make good sense.

    For example, I have occasionally booked a prepaid, non-refundable hotel for the same night while waiting at the gate in the airport terminal.

  • AUSSIEtraveller

    Is this an April fools joke ?

    Get with the programme !!!

    Is something is nonrefundable, it’s nonrefundable.

    You Americans are so far behind the times.

  • conservativescifi

    Duchess is also wrong about businesses not getting mercy. I’m sure everyone has received poor treatment from one business or another, but given them a second (sometimes more) chances to get it right. Today, the cashier at Home Depot told me my credit card was declined, then said “April Fools”. I didn’t find it particularly funny, but I’m not going to stop patronizing them or even ask for the clerk to be punished. I did tell him it was a bad idea to scare customers and moved on.

  • Cam

    Wow. How big of you.

  • Cam

    I thought this too. One night would be more resonable.

  • http://www.facebook.com/CarverFarrow Carver Clark Farrow

    That’s why it’s called compassion.

  • Bettina

    One thing people like you do not understand is this:

    A hotel room that gets cancelled, even if it is under “nonrefundable” will then not be held and is open, even though the person pays for it. It will go back on sale, and if it is sold, then the hotel gets paid twice… so stop being so sanctimonious about this damaging business.

    Yes, it is part of the fact that hotels do not want to end up empty with people not cancelling.

    But in this case, the traveller wasn’t cancelling on the arrival date, or not even bothering, but doing so well in advance of the arrival date, which means the hotel has plenty of time to rebook the room.

    So please tell me whom this goodwill gesture hurt? The hotel? Certainly not. Priceline – neither. But I bet if the traveller ever gets financially to the point they can rebook a holiday, maybe even with her children, she will think of this hotel if it is suitable for a family vacation – and if not, she will look at the hotel chain. And that, in itself is priceless advertising! Which is something you do not seem to understand.

  • BobChi

    I am glad things worked out for this person. I think from the point of view of the company, the difficult thing is that almost anyone who wants to change a reservation could come up with a story – legitimately or not. These companies do not have sizable investigative wings to determine the veracity of each such claim, as I assume Chris Elliot tries to do when he handles things on a case by case basis. I am certain that if word got out that “nonrefundable means nonrefundable unless you can come up with a good story”, the companies would very quickly become inundated with unverifiable appeals for mercy.

    Unless I’m missing something, I’m not sure why Chris feels that if people sometimes disagree with him, they are engaging in personal attacks and want to shut down his blog. Maybe there has been some inappropriate hostility I haven’t read, but I think any blogger, especially one that sometimes tries to be provocative, should expect some disagreement with his ideas and develop a bit of a thicker skin.

  • BobChi

    I’m confused about his choice of wording too. I think he means getting a credit card, getting the bonus, canceling the card, getting the card again, get the bonus again, cancel again, which is what you sometimes do. I wouldn’t call that “churning the balance” The fact is that the credit card companies actually advertise heavily on the very blogs that tell readers how to do this and they offer the bloggers substantial referral fees. Why would they do that if they thought they were being cheated by the blog and its readers? I think Chris is tilting at nonexistent windmills here.

  • Guest

    A company shouldn’t be expected to offer refunds on non-refundable reservations every time, but people like you who support a business methodology of “rules are rules” really irritate me. I fail to understand why a business would ever benefit from this sort of cutthroat behaviour, when occasionally bending their rules for exceptional cases makes for positive customer relations and press, positive moral behaviour, and overall good business.

    The businesses that are slave to their rules are the same ones that whine and complain when they get bad press and negative customer attitude, and find excuse after excuse to explain to their shareholders why their annual profits didn’t meet expectations.

  • calbff

    A company shouldn’t be expected to offer refunds on non-refundable reservations every time, but people who support a business methodology of “rules are rules” really irritate me. I fail to understand why a business would ever benefit from this sort of cutthroat behaviour, when occasionally bending their rules for exceptional cases makes for positive customer relations and press, positive moral behaviour, and overall good business.

    The businesses that are slave to their rules are the same ones that whine and complain when they get bad press and negative customer attitude, and find excuse after excuse to explain to their shareholders why their annual profits didn’t meet expectations.

  • Mundane Lustrator

    If you view contacting a consumer advocate as going through the back door, then why do you come to a consumer advocacy website? (Not an attack. A legit question.)

    The purpose of a consumer advocate is to assist consumers who are having a problem with a company that they personally haven’t been able to resolve. That isn’t going through a back door. That’s getting help.

  • Julie Northrop

    Compassion is something Dutchess knows nothing about after reading her posts. Someday Dutchess may be in the position where she may need a company to show her some compassion. I believe in karma, and what goes around comes around.

  • TonyA_says

    Carver, pls check out this link on the latest court ruling re Priceline.

    http://www.ca2.uscourts.gov/decisions/isysquery/6d250a7c-2504-454e-8a16-e7a3cfcb6c79/1/doc/12-1744_opn.pdf

    It is about the Name Your Price lawsuits.

  • ChBot

    I don’t agree with you : when unforeseen circumstances arise (like fog delaying a cruise ship, or weather delaying a plane), the business is the one asking for understanding, and, from probably aprox 97,5% of its customers, getting it.
    And we don’t know if they have taken a loss : seems she knew about the situation early enough for them to (at least try to) resell the room !

  • pplaresilly

    Here here! touche! And well said! And furthermore, I enjoy Chris’s columns no matter the forum.

    People, don’t be so silly!

  • bodega3

    I come here because it is entertaining and to contribute from the travel side of things. DIY’ers live in a bubble a lot of the time, thinking they know how things should be done, but don’t know the true ways things operate.
    IMHO, the OP shouldn’t have contacted Chris. She went to what she thought/thinks is a budget site, made a nonrefundable purchase and then wants help getting her money back because she won’t be able to utilize her reservation. This isn’t helping by making a call to someone you know when there really isn’t a reason to get her money back. She took a risk and lost. But in today’s world, nobody wants to take responsibility for their actions and use whatever means they can to go around the rules. Chris played into this and IMHO he shouldn’t have. There have only been a handful of time where I think he has done what an advocate should do. Most of the time, he is assisting those who make mistakes because all they see is price and they can whine about it later if there is a problem. I am all for helping people when they really need it. Making a stupid decision to buy a nonrefundable room reservation months out from the date of travel when for a few dollars more a cancelable rate was offered isn’t worthy of bothering someone about it.

  • 18Yr Vet

    Didn’t even finish reading your article. Don’t need to.
    What is the difference between “…troll the comments” and reading your article? Oh, I get it. If I agree with you, I’m a reader. If I don’t agree with you, I’m a troll. Either way, I’m done reading.

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    I appreciate you offering your perspective in a rational and logical fashion. I enjoy reading different opinions so that I can make my own judgments, both now and in the future. Might not agree with the opinion expressed (I don’t agree with *anyone* 100%!), but when I can see what underlies the opinion. I respect it. Thank you.

  • eileen

    Ok. The tone of this article is a bit patronizing, in that it is a lot of, “My work is tireless and thankless and you all are being big meanies about it.”

    That being said.

    I don’t see anything wrong with at least farming Ms. Alloway’s conundrum out to a third party to see if there was anything that could be done. Circumstances got out of her control and she needed an advocate. Chris was her advocate. He didn’t go on and on about how injust Priceline is, or the cruel nature of the travel industry. He simply reached out to them and said the equivalent of: “Hey, can you do this lady a favor and work with her?” Everyone involved knew they didn’ thave to, but they chose to.

    And you know what? For people like me who have avoided Priceline like the plague since I got hosed on a flight with them ten years ago? It makes me think about using them again.

  • Mundane Lustrator

    Although I really disagree with your POV, I appreciate your response.

  • Laura Giles

    Some of the best features I found in my trip to India were horse riding in Jaipur and the forts and monuments there. I bought a package tour for Rajasthan from xclusivevacations.com which turned out great to me.