Yes, airlines can do something right

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If you think the airline industry doesn’t do anything right, think again.

A few weeks ago, Brian Crummy had to pay for the same night twice at two different hotels.

The reason: His plans changed, and the rate he’d booked was completely non-refundable and non-changeable, even when he waved his diamond elite card at the receptionist.

“They would not budge,” says Crummy, a sales manager from Gilbert, Ariz. “I feel like the hotels bank on me taking the advance-purchase rate to save money, in hopes that my plans change and they can cash in.”

Are airlines any better? Well, kinda.

Had Crummy changed his mind within 24 hours of making his reservation, he could have received a full refund on his airline ticket, as long as it was a week or more before his departure.

Even if it wasn’t, he could have asked for — and received — a ticket credit, minus a $200 change fee.

I know, I know. Not the fairest comparison.

True, many hotels still offer customer-friendly policies, including the ability to cancel a room without penalty, often until 6 p.m. on the day of arrival.

But times are changing. The 6 p.m. deadline is sliding up to 4 p.m. for a lot of hotels, and budget properties are offering modest discounts in exchange for the room being completely non-refundable, often with poor dis-closure.

The result: I’m being inundated by complaints from readers who say hotels aren’t playing fair. They want them to be more like airlines, in a limited way. For a non-refundable stay, should hotels offer a courtesy cancellation window and a room credit, when plans change?

Of course they should.

Why don’t they? The hotel argues that allowing any of these practices would cost it money, and it almost certainly would. The way a hotel sees it, it’s offering a discount of up to 20% in exchange for making your room completely non-refundable. In exchange, guests accept the risk that their plans might change and that they will forfeit the entire room charge.

“I don’t think it’s fair for the customer to have it both ways,” says Glenn Haussman, editor in chief of Hotel Interactive, a hotel industry trade publication.

“They have a choice allowing them to cancel up to the same day in many cases, and by offering a credit, for example, the industry is just asking for customers to always book rooms at lower rates, which, in turn, would erode industry profits.”

That may be accurate, but airlines used the same argument — that allowing a cancellation within a day of making a booking would hurt earnings — before the Transportation Department in 2011 imposed the 24-hour rule. Since then, industry profits have soared.

How about a room credit? Should a hotel just be able to keep all your money, as it did for Crummy, especially if his accommodations can be resold?

Not every room can be rebooked, particularly for resorts in remote locations or that have long lengths of stays or during the week of a festival, for example.

“There may not be pickups of one-week reservations and around special events,” notes Bjorn Hanson, a professor at NYU’s Tisch Center for Hospitality, Tourism, and Sports Management. It seems right for a hotel to protect itself from any losses.

But if the room is resold, why not? Pocketing all a guest’s money seems wrong to many travelers.

Even if hotels wanted to do it that way, how would anyone go about verifying whether a room was resold? You’d have to take a hotel’s word for it that it did, or didn’t. No, that wouldn’t work. A room credit makes more sense.

“As non-refundable rooms become more prevalent, and I think they will, hotels will more than likely adopt policies such as offering rebooking opportunities for a fee or a 24-hour grace period for canceling a non-refundable booking,” says Stephen Barth, hospitality law professor at the Univer-sity of Houston.

That would be good news. Now, if we could only get airlines to be more like hotels — wouldn’t that be something?

Which industry has the most customer-friendly policies?

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How do you avoid getting stuck with a non-refundable hotel rate?

Look before you book. Many discount chains will give priority to these non-refundable rates on their websites, even when the discounts are negligible. Be sure to read the fine print in the terms before booking.

Consider travel insurance. An insurance policy can cover you if you need to cancel your trip. But significant restrictions apply. Consult your policy before making a claim.

Haggle if you can. Hotels are nowhere near as rigid with their rules as airlines, and a brief, polite e-mail to a manager or to the hotel chain’s headquarters can yield a room credit, if not a refund.

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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  • Carver Clark Farrow

    I’m guardedly optimistic that we’re not headed towards that scenario. My reasons are, in no particular order

    1. Meaningful competition
    2. Greater level of consumer knowledge
    3. Ease of offering multiple tiers of service

    I would opine that that’s why of the most commonly used parts of the travel industry, air, lodging, rental cars, the hotel and rental cars have far more customer friendly policies overall.

  • AUSSIEtraveller

    who said anything about online wholesalers ?

    Online gives a convenient comparison for both air & hotels, but virtually never cheapest.

    A good travel agent can access both airfare & hotel rates that can’t even be found online.

    We fly to USA a lot & often fly one airline over & different airline back & much cheaper than offered flying either airline both ways, especially at peak times like Xmas (Australians have 6-8 weeks holidays over Dec-Jan period – we don’t like working)

  • AUSSIEtraveller

    no that’s the con. Airlines know it, but aren’t going to advertise it.

    Did some work for a smaller airline recently, who were amazed at how infrequently business types changed their flights, even though on fully flexible expensive tickets.

    They buy them, because they “think they are important”.

    Should distinguish between business owners who effectively pay their own fares & those on someone else’s dime & public servants.

    The latter 2, tend to swan around airport lounges, eating & drinking FREE (all drinks are free in Australian airline lounges) for hours, as they can get away with it.

    BTW-in Australia you can still often buy cheaper tickets as long as outside 24 hours before departure.

    Who plans a business trip less than 24 hours out ? Not that many. Who’s slack (when someone else is paying) & books their flights inside 24 hours, is the real question.

    Since GFC many corporates have tightened up their airfare purchasing policies, eg. no business/1st class or buy cheapest non-flexible tickets available at time. This is hurting the big inefficient airlines.

    That said, many seasoned travellers realise that once in an airline lounge, you can often get on an earlier flight, by simply being nice to the person at the desk, no matter how cheap your ticket.

    We often travel busy routes like SYD/MEL & SYD/BNE (some of the busiest in the world) on frequent flyer tickets & might be booked on an 1800 flight, but arrive at lounge at 1600 & person at desk in lounge with put us on earlier flight (at that time of day, they go every 1/2 hour).

    This is not a passenger change, but airlines may as well fill the earlier flight, esp in peak hour as later flights may be delayed.

    We have massive airline congestion at our busiest airlines. ie. SYD is a mess & BNE is not much better.

  • DaffyMuck

    I agree with Mr. Farrow’s comments preceding mine. I admit I haven’t had to fly much at all in the last 4 years but I have to use hotels and when I call to book, I use discount bookers but I still call the hotel and ask for an email or fax of their most recent policies. You can’t always go by what may be posted on their sites as things do tend to change but don’t always get updated on all their marketing venues and of course, they, like all businesses have that save their ass clause that they are not responsible for third party disclosure failings. But when I was using both services on a frequent basis, I never got bumped from a hotel room but I did on my flight. On an airplane you don’t always get to change a seating location, in a hotel if they have space available, it is never a problem. I have always been able to say to a hotel, uh, I am lost and won’t make my room tonight what can we do. Oh don’t worry Mr. Bxxxxxx,
    I have a load of folks looking for a room tonight, I can fill it, see you tomorrow. You see, I don’t deal with the big chains, I stick to the small Ma & Pa Kettle hotels/motels, you get a lot more done that way. Airlines and corporate chains you don’t mean crap. In one circumstance though, my wife and I were way-laid and missed our flight totally. I remember now, it was AMR parent of American Airlines. I called every SOB including the chief of the custodians and no-one would work with me. So I sat down and wrote an old fashioned letter and sent it to the then CEO of American. In three weeks, I received a full refund of our flight, a short but very courteous HSTLTR from the CEO and a promise of 10% off our next flight (-) taxes and bag fees. Believe it or not, writing a letter which use to be a way of life in this country not too long ago is now considered by many to be the ultimate show of commitment and truth and for me, in that isolated incident it worked.