He says he didn’t smoke in his room, but Marriott says he did – who’s right?

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Joe Wilson says he didn’t smoke at the Courtyard Boston Lowell. The hotel says he did. Or, to be exact, that he left the room smelling like cigarette smoke.

The Courtyard charged Wilson a $250 cleaning fee, and he doesn’t think he should pay. Should I get involved in this dust-up?

Yes, it’s yet another he said/he said, and this one may be hard to resolve. Impossible, even. I’m not sure if I completely believe either side.

It all started on the night of Jan. 22, when Wilson and three friends checked into the property. They paid cash, but Wilson offered his credit card for incidentals.

“On Monday I checked my credit account and saw that I had been charged $250 from the hotel without any contact regarding the situation,” he reports. “No issues had occurred that night and overall, I figured our stay at the hotel had been fairly pleasant.”

He asked a hotel representative about the charge and was told that “there was picture evidence taken by the maids that was proof we had smoked inside the room,” he says. “When I received the pictures, they were of a non-smoked broken cigarette on the counter, a cup containing a non-smoked cigarette that had gotten wet and dry, unrolled tobacco.”

He adds,

I was told by the hotel manager that a non-smoked cigarette left in the room was evidence that smoking had gone on in the room, but this cannot be correct because I was told by the same manager that cigarettes were allowed in the building but could not be smoked.

I have been refused a refund for this fee and I think that is wrong and I am being targeted by the hotel because I am a college student.

I also looked over all the hotel smoking policy rules and the form that I signed at check-in, and nothing states that full, non-smoked cigarettes and an empty pack is evidence.

I think we can all agree that an unsmoked cigarette is circumstantial evidence, at best. So I asked Wilson to show me the paper trail. I wondered what the hotel had to say for itself.

I was curious to see the company’s response. Here are two emails, part of the paper trail between Wilson and the hotel, that offer the hotel’s perspective:

Thank you for taking the time to reach out to me this afternoon. Per your request here are the 2 pictures that were taken from your room upon departure.

I would also like to add, as discussed, the room smelled heavily of smoke. To this point we were unable to rent room 209 the night of 1/23/16.

This was followed by a call to the hotel, which generated several more written responses, including this one:

I do apologize that it seems that we are at an impasse with regards to the smoking and the subsequent charge that occurred during your stay with us.

As you advised me this afternoon, you are seeking legal counsel. As a result of your desire to pursue this line of action I ask that you do not personally contact me or anyone at our hotel regarding this dispute. This will prevent any misinformation/confusion and allow our counsels to communicate in a productive 3rd party manner.

Should you feel the need to return to the hotel to dispute this matter further, you will be politely asked to leave while legal proceedings are started. Should you choose to remain and/or become hostel [sic] in any way, the Lowell Police will be called and you escorted off the property.

Thank you for staying with us as we valued your choice to stay with us.

And, finally, he received this reply from a Marriott corporate liaison:

We are aware that Mr. Lessard, the General Manager of the Courtyard Boston Lowell, sent you an e-mail showing a smoked cigarette in a Styrofoam cup found in your room as well as the broken unsmoked cigarette to which you referred. In this case, we consider the hotel’s charges justified and we support their decision to impose the cleaning fee.

Hmm. So the room allegedly smelled of smoke and the staff found unsmoked cigarettes in room. Or were they smoked? I would almost say that where there’s smoke, there’s fire, but the staff didn’t catch anyone in the act of smoking.

In Wilson’s favor: The hotel did not act in good faith by arbitrarily billing his credit card $250. The right thing to do would have been to ask him about the smell before he checked out and received his approval for the cleaning charge. If the room smelled of cigarette smoke, and the staff had a chance to take pictures of the cigarettes, then they would have had an opportunity to ask him about his activities prior to checkout.

I have my own bias on a case like this. I don’t smoke and I don’t believe anyone should smoke in a hotel. Allowing cigarettes on the property is about as smart as allowing guests with loaded firearms — nothing will happen, probably. But why take chances?

I think Marriott mishandled this case, first by blindsiding Wilson with a $250 late charge on his credit card, then by sending him a series of increasingly firm emails. He might have a valid credit card dispute here.

At the same time, I suspect one of Wilson’s friends lit up while they were staying there. Maybe they opened the window and smoked “outside” but whatever happened, I’m pretty sure the room smelled bad when they left. So I can’t blame Marriott for pushing its case.

I’ve asked the company to review this case one more time, but I’m not sure how hard I should push.

Should I advocate for Joe Wilson?

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

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  • cjbs98

    It could very well be that neither he nor anyone in his party smoked in the room, but if they were smokers and it seems pretty obvious that someone was, then their clothes, etc, would smell like smoke. If they smoked in a car and then went into the room, the room would definitely smell of smoke. So it becomes as was written above a case of he says, they say. If you have a no smoking room and leave cigarettes around the room then you are just asking for trouble.

  • Chris_In_NC

    “As you advised me this afternoon, you are seeking legal counsel”

    If Wilson mentioned attorney, lawsuit, or gave the impression/perception that he was seeking a lawyer, then I doubt you will get anywhere with Marriott.

  • Steve L.

    I agree that I don’t want smoke in my room, and that people should not be allowed to smoke in a hotel room. If a hotel is going to charge to clean a room, then why can’t there be an unambiguous standard? If a human nose can detect smoke at a certain level, certainly there is an analytical test that can be performed to detect the smoke – some sort of air sampling device. In this case, it would not prove who had smoked or when they had done it, but it would be better evidence.

    Comparing a drug to a firearm is not a good comparison, though. Neither unlit cigarettes nor a loaded gun will cause any problem whatsoever by just sitting there; the comparison ends there, though. I can imagine someone who is physically addicted to smoking deciding to take the risk and not go outside late at night, in the rain, or in the cold. I can’t imagine someone with a licensed firearm deciding to shoot a gun in the hotel because he is too lazy to go to a gun range.

  • Stephen0118

    “The right thing to do would have been to ask him about the smell before he checked out and received his approval for the cleaning charge. ”
    The problem with that is when the customer checks out before the maid can get to the room. When I travel, I usually like to catch a morning flight, so I usually leave the hotel around 5:00 am (sometimes earlier than that), so the maid service won’t get to the room until later, so it really depends on what time the OP left the hotel.

  • sirwired

    In a defense of a hotel, unlike rental cars, where there’s usually ample opportunity to inspect a car prior to issuing the receipt, with a hotel you often get your checkout receipt even prior to you leaving the room. I would expect any charges for smoking, damage, etc., to appear a day or two later.

    I don’t see how the hotel could have informed him PRIOR to checkout, since they only stayed one night; housekeeping never even entered the room until after they were gone.

    That said, they should have called him before billing, not just charged his card.

  • sirwired

    I noticed this too; they only stayed one night, so I don’t see how the hotel could have known prior to checkout about the smell.

  • The Original Joe S

    Oh, come on! Everybody KNOWS that the gun will, by itself, up and shoot someone.

  • Fishplate

    The analytical test for odor is typically carried out using human noses…

  • David___1

    I voted no, don’t advocate. But I also see a warning here about how hotels are often deceptive. “Courtyard Boston Lowell” is a pretty inaccurate name. This hotel is in Lowell, MA. The hotel is about a 30 mile drive from the city of Boston. Should someone book on the name they might be lead to believe they are staying in Boston when they aren’t really even close. And this sort of deception seems to be pretty common.

  • Zod

    Some people invite drama into their lives

  • Bill___A

    Common enough that people generally know how to deal with it. Boston is the nearest big metro area. I don’t see how this is pertinent to the issue at hand. All the major hotel chains classify their hotels in this manner.

  • technomage1

    He may not have smoked in the room, but I’d bet a steak dinner one of his friends did and left him with the bill.

  • John Baker

    I voted no. He threatened legal action and, as a result, has ended any hope of settling this without a lawyer. Guess he’ll need to follow through on his threat or take his lumps.

  • MarkKelling

    So he or one of the people staying in the room with him is a smoker, else why are there cigarettes there that he is not disputing the origin?

    Smokers don’t realize that they smell of smoke even when they are not actively smoking. It is very easy for the smell to transfer from their clothes to their surroundings simply by sitting in a chair or getting in the bed. If a customer causes the hotel room to smell of cigarettes even if they don’t actually smoke in the room, the hotel still has to spend the time and money to remove that odor before the next guest stays there especially if the hotel markets itself as a non-smoking hotel.

  • Bill___A

    Without taking into consideration this particular story, it has been my experience that Marriott is extremely reluctant to put smoking charges on a room (I’ve caught people red handed and they didn’t). I suspect they must have had some pretty compelling proof. As to “calling before charging” that is a non starter. Do hotels call before putting charges on? No. You agree to it when you check in. They are especially not going to call if it is a penalty charge of some sort.
    What we need is a detector that can be put in the room and tell these things definitively.

  • Rebecca

    Should people smoke in hotel rooms? No. Do I think this guy and/or one of his friends did? Yes. And the fact that he threatened a lawyer means stay out of it. That’s not my rule, that’s a rule for the cases Chris takes.

    That being said, I’m just curious about the no cigarettes on the property thing. Certainly on private property businesses have the right to make rules about what people can bring. But that’s a little ridiculous. There are plenty of people that smoke and don’t break the rules. They go outside. To me, that’s like saying I can’t bring a bottle of grape juice because I might spill it.

  • LonnieC

    Let’s see: On the merits: two open cigarettes in the non-smoking room. Why? On procedure: threat to use attorney. Don’t represent. No chance of success with hotel. Don’t waste your time.

  • Pat

    Hotels that I have stayed at that are non-smoking have made me aware of the smoking cleaning fee. With the evidence they received, unless they can prove all of the people staying the in room are non-smokers, this case will be difficult to win. Also I would stay away from this one since they said they were going to get a lawyer involved.

    For the future, if they are smokers, even if they do not smoke in the room, they need to stay in hotels that have rooms that allow smoking (which I know is becoming difficult to find). It could be if one person is a heavy smoker and they were smoking in the car before arrival, the smell of smoke on all of them and their possessions can easily be carried into the room.

  • technomage1

    Whatever he said to the hotel was severe enough they told him they’d have the police escort him off the property if he came back.

  • Jeff W.

    I also noticed this too.

    I don’t recall the last time I actually had to check out of a hotel. The bill is usually under the door or I know the e-mail receipt is coming the next day.

    No hotel I know of is going to do a walkthrough with the guests during the checkout process to make sure the room doesn’t smell of smoke, all the towels/robes are still there, everything is in the mini-bar, etc… That is what housekeeping does between the posted checkout times and the earliest check-in times. And that is why they keep your credit card on file in case they find something after you leave.

  • Jeff W.

    Once the word lawyer was mentioned, you cannot help. Once that card is played, game over. And odds are quite high Marriott has better lawyers than Mr. Joe Wilson. And more of them.

  • Flatlander

    The last time I stayed at a motel, I totally had a loaded firearm with me which was owned legally and being carried legally. I never leave home without at least one. Gun control is all fun and games until you’re watching somebody rape your wife in a motel room and there is nothing you can do about it.

  • Helene Apper

    Honestly – what I would like to know is what the cost to the hotel is for “cleaning” the room from the smoke. How much is the room per night that they allegedly lost because they could not rent it out. What did they do to abate the smell of smoke. Shutter the thought – but did housekeeping actually have to change the sheets? Did they steam clean the carpets? What did they do to justify this fee.

  • Tricia K

    My husband and daughter both have asthma and can get very sick in a hotel room that reeks of smoke, even without someone actively smoking at the time. Smokers have no idea how much everything reeks to a non-smoker. When we visited a relative who smoked heavily, but only in one spot in the house, I had to wash everything in the suitcase when we got home because even the clothes we didn’t wear reeked of cigarettes. I have huge problem with people smoking in hotel rooms from both a health and safety perspective. People falling asleep with a lit cigarette in their hand can cause a fire.

    That said, I’m not sure how the hotel was supposed to check the room for the odor before he checked out as the maid doesn’t go into the room to clean until after you check out. Should they have sent him some sort of notification before charging him? Yes, but that could very well have been included in the agreement not to smoke that he signed at check-in.

    I voted no for your advocacy because he has at least threatened a lawsuit, whether or not he actually pursues it, and I think that limits your ability to advocate on his behalf.

  • Ben

    I suspect the fee for deterrence more than actual cost. If it was more aligned to the actual cost many people would light up anyway and just pay the fee.

  • Pat

    The fee is there to both discourage the behavior and to recover the costs of removing the smell. Everything that is fabric will probably need to cleaned. Also the room might not be available until this is done This is much more than change the sheets. On a couple occasions, I had to go back to the desk and ask for another room because I smelled cigarette smoke in a non-smoking room. If everything is not thoroughly cleaned, the smell can linger.

  • Helene Apper

    I agree with you Pat – HOWEVER, that being said, I believe that if the fee is going to be charged, they should detail out what has to be done. It is possible that maybe the smell came from their clothing and a simple febreeze job will do the trick. I believe a more fair charge would be a one night cost of the room. What if it were a $500 a night room. Then it is a losing situation for the hotel. I really believe this is a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation.

  • cscasi

    “In Wilson’s favor: The hotel did not act in good faith by arbitrarily billing his credit card $250. The right thing to do would have been to ask him about the smell before he checked out and received his approval for the cleaning charge. If the room smelled of cigarette smoke, and the staff had a chance to take pictures of the cigarettes, then they would have had an opportunity to ask him about his activities prior to checkout”.
    Really? I stay in Marriott brand hotels all the time (for over 40 years) and I will tell you that none of the times I have checked out have they sent someone up to my room to check it before allowing me to check out. I recently stayed in two Marriotts in the Dallas/Fort Worth area; one for 2 nights and the second for 10 nights. Maid service was always late in the afternoons. When I checked in at the second hotel to try to get an early check-in at 2:00 PM, the room was not ready because their normal check-in is 3:00 P.M.
    So, I have my doubts that the hotel would have had an opportunity to ask Mr. Wilson about his activities prior to checkout; unless he stayed around for a long period after he checked out.
    And, the reply from Marriott did state that the maids found a SMOKED cigarette in a Styrofoam cup in his room, did it not? Why would that be found in a room unless it was smoked there? Normally people do not use a non smoking hotel, smoke outside and then bring the smoked cigarettes back into their room.
    Could one of his friends have smoked in his room or brought a lit cigarette into the room and put it out in the Styrofoam cup? Who knows.
    I feel for Mr. Wilson if he and/or his friends did not smoke in the room. But, I don’t think the hotel would normally go and stage a room just to collect $250 from a customer.
    In any case, leaving a smoked and an unsmoked cigarette lying around in a non-smoking room can invite problems, especially if the room did smell of smoke.
    I would not be able to advocate this and since Mr. Wilson is seeking legal counsel I do not feel it is appropriate for us to try to do so. Marriott is following the correct procedure after being notified of such action.

  • cscasi

    Just remember, if you shoot someone in your room while you are smoking, you might get charged a fee! :-)

  • Pat

    If it was a matter of spraying air freshener, they might not have charged the fee. Below is the Marriott policy taken from the Lowell Courtyard web page.

    “The policy is integrated in the Marriott Quality Assurance process. All associates have been trained to respond to potential violations of the policy. For example, housekeepers are trained to observe signs of smoking in the hotel. Guests are reminded at the time of booking and upon arrival at the hotel that smoking is not permitted inside the building. Pre-arrival email notifications also include a reference to the policy. There is a significant room recovery fee for guests who do not comply in order to cover the extensive cost of restoring guest rooms to a smoke-free condition.”

    Considering the evidence, the fee was justified and the OP highly likely knew of the fee. Also detailing what was done and the cost just over complicates the situation. He needs to be going after the others in the room to see if they smoked or placed the unsmoked cigarettes in the room to recover the fee from the guilty party.

  • Rebecca

    Good catch.

    That speaks volumes actually. I wasn’t on his side to begin with, but now I think we need another 10 foot pole warning….

  • Jeff W.

    I agree.

    If you take this logic further, think of all the airports that are not actually in the city itself, but in an outlying suburb, county, or sometime even different state.

    Since the hotel is not the Courtyard Boston, but Boston Lowell, you would guess that it is in the Lowell neighborhood of Boston (don’t think that exists) or in a suburb.

    Not everyone who is looking to stay in Boston, or any city for that matter, wants to stay in the city proper, and the combo name is helpful.

  • pauletteb

    Reminds me of the “Mystic” Marriott, which is actually right off I-95 in Groton, Connecticut, next to a little industrial park.

  • pauletteb

    I think most nonsmokers would be able to tell whether a room had been smoked in up to several days prior without significant cleaning, which necessitates cleaning/ changing out drapes and any other fabric surfaces.

  • Extramail

    Just this afternoon, I had a doctors appointment and there were obvious smokers in the waiting room. Three of us signed in and then sat in the hall because the smell was so strong. No one actually smoked while we were in the room but the smell was overwhelming. I don’t know if he smoked in the room or not but he invoked his attorney so it’s out of your hands, Chris.

  • taxed2themax

    I agree.. While it’s not clear exactly what he said, it sounds like he directly introduced a legal challenge. As such, I think the hotels answer was both polite, firm and quite appropriate. I think that was a wholly professional way to address the matter — once a legal challenge has been laid down… Concurrent with that, I suspect that in doing so, the chances that an unrelated 3rd party, Chris, will have a lower odds to now intervene and find a resolution.
    I think there IS a time and place for the use of the legal process, however, it tends to be one that can’t be “undone” and therefore really should be ones last line of option and used only after exhausting all other possible options.

  • Tom McShane

    How many rapes did you have to witness before you started packing heat to he hotel>

  • Tom McShane

    Years ago we stayed in the vicinity of Disney World at the Holiday Inn Main Gate East. Traveled each day from the hotel to the Disney Parks, but never did see that Main Gate.

  • Michael

    As a non smoker, I can tell when someone has smoked outside and passed through the hallway in front of me until the air handling has sufficiently processed the area. In a room without much airflow, and where clothes smoked in were able to make contact transfer, there will be inevitably residue that smells like evidence. Unless the linens were turned and the air cycled a few times, any non smoker would have known they followed a smoker. Leaving physical evidence is the key – just the lingering smell would have been much harder to prove.

    And since it’s already paid for, consider reaching out to the variety of cessation programs nationwide – $250 is nothing compared to your health, I hope the OP a long, healthy, and easy-breathing life.

  • KarlaKatz

    As a fully-licensed and permitted-to-carry gun owner, I do take umbrage with your comment regarding having a loaded firearm in a hotel room. Having my Glock 23, 40mm, at the ready in the privacy of my room, cannot ever compare to a drug-crazed nicotine-addicted maniac, craving a ciggy, lighting up to satisfy their smoke-lust. Really, Chris… harrumph, indeed.

  • KarlaKatz

    Ditto! I doubt the management would have used that verbiage, unless OP said/acted out in an offensive manner.

  • judyserienagy

    I don’t believe that a hotel room will smell like smoke because a smoker walks around in it. But I do agree that leaving cigarettes in a non-smoking room when you checkout is rather stupid. One of the four probably smoked a cigarette in the room. I do wish that more General Managers would take a stroll around their own hotels and observe the staff in a guest room on break, smoking.

  • cjbs98

    True. But I have a friend who is a heavy smoker and when she opens the door to her car, the stench is unreal. (I smoked a zillion years ago) and her clothes, her hair, everything really smells. I suspect if she spent any time in a hotel room, it too would reek of smoke. And if all 4 were smokers, well………..

  • cjbs98

    Absolutely true and if someone needed to get to Boston for meetings at a particular time (assuming they thought the hotel was in Boston), they would have no idea that 30 miles or so could take up to 2 hours for their commute….. :)

  • Hajime Sano

    I am curious how this case is resolved, as I grew up in the area. When I visit family, I often stay at local hotels. This Courtyard is one of the close ones, so I’d like to see how they handle this.

    BTW, if someone had smoked in the room, wouldn’t the smoke detector have sounded? Or wouldn’t there have been evidence of the smoke detector having been disabled?

    I too agree that smoker’s clothing can leave a distinct odor in a room.

    I’ve seen hotel employees smoke in non-smoking rooms when they visit it on official duty. Even if they weren’t actively smoking during the visit, the smoker employee’s clothing also could’ve left the distinct smell of tobacco smoke. Have these possibilities been explored?