What to do about that nonrefundable refundable hotel rate in Paris

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Something tells me Fatima from the front desk of the Hôtel du Triangle d’Or wants me to mind my own business, and I will. But not before telling Monika Christian’s story.

Christian recently found a reasonably good rate to stay at the hotel, located in Paris’ upscale 8th Arrondissement, for three nights, Aug. 25 to 27. Total price, including taxes, came to 477 euro.

Just below her confirmation were the terms of her reservation: “Promo Internet Free Cancellation.”

hotel du triangle d'orAnd so, when she tried to cancel a few days later, Christian was surprised when the hotel informed her it would be pocketing her 477 euro, down to the last cent.

We have to inform you that the booking you have made on our site is indeed a non-refundable booking.

You have choosed a promotion, 2=3 nights, and in order to have this offer you have to pay all at the reservation time, non-refundable.

As you can see in the cancellation policy.

Mind the English.

I asked Christian to show me the entire thread between her and the Hôtel du Triangle d’Or. Maybe there had been some kind of misunderstanding.

Sure enough, Christian showed the hotel screenshots of the offer. Here’s the relevant wording:

Promo Internet Free Cancellation

Our cancellation policy is 48 hours before arrival without charge. In case of no show or late cancellation, the first night will be charged.

That looks pretty cut-and-dried, doesn’t it? Christian showed it to the hotel. Its response, according to her, was to revise its website to clarify this special rate.

Oops! No longer was it refundable.

Enough of the shenanigans, I thought. I contacted the Hôtel du Triangle d’Or and asked if it could please clarify the situation. Was Christian’s room refundable or not?

The response? Well, read for yourself.

Dear Sir,

Further to your request our manager decide to refundable your guest exceptionally and he apologizes for this misunderstanding.

It is the first time you meet this situation. Almost guests understood wether in this promotion 2=3 the last night was free and non refundable.

As long as our policy is based on commercial transparency, it doesn’t have to be justified.

We hope to have answered at your request and we remain at your disposal for any information you may need.

Best regards.

Fatima.

Front desk.

Well, Fatima from the front desk, thank you for refunding Christian’s charge, and I’m sorry for the misunderstanding, too. But the bigger issue is: was the room refundable or not? If it wasn’t, you don’t have to refund anything. If it was, then you do.

I don’t know if there are any major takeaways for us. Christian got everything in writing, and still the outcome was less than ideal, until I got involved.

Language barrier? Oui, goes without saying.

Deal with a reputable travel agent? Sure, that might have prevented it. The terms would have been clearly displayed in an agent’s reservation system, or at least one would hope.

I’m conflicted about this one. I didn’t advocate for the Hôtel du Triangle d’Or to refund this customer. I can well understand Fatima’s displeasure at my intervention, but is it asking too much to be clear about a cancellation policy?

Should I have turned down Monika Christian's case?

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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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  • jpp42

    I don’t find the response from the front desk clerk to be rude at all – where did you get that?

    Where does it say, “mind your own business?” It specifically says, “we remain at your disposal for any information you may need” which sounds like the opposite of telling you to stay out!

    As for the actual issue, it’s impossible to pass judgement on this without seeing screenshots of the web site or the full details of the reservation confirmation, hence I haven’t voted.

  • flutiefan

    i fail to see in any part of Fatima’s communication where she said to mind your own business. not even an implication of such.

  • http://elliott.org Christopher Elliott

    Thanks for pointing that out. That was an early (before 5 a.m.) headline that wasn’t supposed to be there. I’ve also added a screen shot.

  • FQTVLR

    English is obviously not Fatima’s best language, but it is far from rude.

  • PsyGuy

    Assuming these screen shots she sent you were accurate, It’s pretty cut and dried she was entitled to a refund. Maybe the hotel made an error in its’ advertising, but that’s their error, and their obligation to remedy.

    I believe it was a very good idea for you to get involved, simply because international disputes where there is a language barrier become very frustrating for all parties. You got involved, they figured out who you were, and they didn’t want bad PR, they refunded the charges. That very likely would not have happened without your involvement.

    In all honesty, as an aside, I don’t know why you stress these pseudo-ethical issues? You’re a consumer advocate, not a business advocate.

    I didn’t find Fatima’s response rude or confrontational at all, quite the opposite, she seems despite the language challenge at least open to being of assistance.

  • http://elliott.org Christopher Elliott

    I think you’re reading the cached (pre-5 a.m.) headline. She’s not being rude, I agree.

  • jpp42

    The text still says, ” Fatima from the front desk of the Hôtel du Triangle d’Or wants me to mind my own business…” which to me doesn’t seem like a fair characterisation of her email – nowhere does it say that she finds your inquiry unwelcome.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    pseudo-ethical?

  • PsyGuy

    Ditto I cleared the cache and reloaded the page the first line hasn’t changed.

  • PsyGuy

    Yes, as in “having the appearance of being ethical”.

  • TonyA_says

    At least they are honest.
    Here, everything has a special place and the guest is always the protagonist.

  • http://elliott.org Christopher Elliott

    Oh, the first line … that was my overall impression with dealing with Fatima. Polite but not happy to have me involved at all. That probably didn’t come through in the soundbites I used.

  • http://elliott.org Christopher Elliott

    Perhaps we are pseudo-ethical, but at least we try. I think that counts for something.

  • EvilEmpryss

    I came here from your email, in which the original “mind my own business” text still appears.

    Considering how much you write and some of the dumb turns of phrase I’ve made when writing in the wee hours, I’m not inclined to hammer you over it. This is just an FYI. ;-)

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    I meant what do you mean…

    In all honesty, as an aside, I don’t know why you stress these
    pseudo-ethical issues? You’re a consumer advocate, not a business
    advocate.

    Are you saying that Chris should not be concerned about the ethics of the situation? I don’t know that’s why I’m asking. And why is it only pseudo?

  • http://elliott.org Christopher Elliott

    Yep, that’s automatically generated by the RSS feed. I couldn’t change that, unfortunately. Now that I’ve had three cups of coffee, I’m ready for anything!

  • EvilEmpryss

    Even if she did want you to mind your own business, your business is digging into other business’s business to clear up the funny business so you were, in fact, minding your own business! ^_^

  • MarkKelling

    I’m sure the conditions are perfectly clear – when read in French.

    It is not difficult to lose some of the detail when translating from one language to another. At least the hotel has someone who did their best to answer you in English. How many US hotels would answer in French to a similar question from someone over there?

    Glad the hotel did refund after all.

  • dervin

    The interesting thing about you is for a consumer advocate, you have a great deal of sympathy for the businesses in the industry. And your sympathy is born out of respect and knowledge of the industry – you know how difficult it is to make money in the travel industry. It explains your hostility to fat-finger discounts, coupon-code swapping and other less than 100% ethical consumer behaviors.

    Your sympathies to the hotel in this case seems quite disturbing. The hotel was trying to steal from the OP. This shouldn’t be in doubt at all, when you and the OP presented the actual screen-shots they didn’t claim an error in translation from the French policy, they just rewrote the policy to steal money from the OP. This wasn’t a fat-finger misunderstanding, this was outright attempted fraud.

  • shannonfla

    I’m reading it at 10:19am EST and it still has a sentence about MYOB, which like others have pointed out, doesn’t seem to be the case.

  • Andrea Herling

    I love France and go there as often as I can. In a former life I was a French teacher, and I still speak decent French. Yet I have had to accept the fact that the cultural and business norms in France don’t always align with ours. In France, things sometimes just are the way they are and arguing doesn’t work. (I suppose that’s true here, but we can better predict how things will go.) My take is that Christian would have gotten NOWHERE without your involvement and I’m glad you took on her case.

    So–vive la difference! But if the hotel wants U.S. guests, they should make some adjustments to U.S. norms.

  • MarkKelling

    Why should a hotel in a foreign country work like a hotel in the US? If you want that, stay at a Holiday Inn or Marriott. A lot of times the joy of travel means experiencing something different.

    I do agree that if a hotel is marketing itself to English speakers, the web site should be checked for clarity and completeness to avoid confusion such as this.

  • ORguest

    Fatima does a better job with English than I could do with French. Or just about any other language.

  • emanon256

    I voted no, the screen shot seems to show it is refundable, and the hotel seems to have admitted it was their mistake and refunded it. It just annoys me that they hotel wasn’t going to refund it until Chris got involved. It should not take a consumer advocate to get a hotel to follow a policy they put in writing, but of course, because of situations like this we need consumer advocates. Thank you, Chris, for helping!

  • ArizonaRoadWarrior

    I think that it is somewhat misleading for hotels, booking sites, etc. to use “FREE Cancellation” in their advertising/marketing/etc. A few weeks ago, I went to Orbitz to check for some hotel rooms for my brother-in-law and his family. His wife wanted a hotel that had a “Free Cancellation” but I had to explain that they could cancel the reservation but you have to cancel it two days before it starts which wasn’t feasible for them since they were changing their travel plans daily.

    I think that some people could interpret “Free Cancellation” that they can cancel at any time without a penalty which were not the case in most of listings that I saw in the Orbitz searches for hotels in Southern California. I don’t know why the industry went from “Cancellable” to ‘FREE Cancellation” in their listings. Personally, I think that it was a way to ‘hide’ the pre-payment non-refundable room rates.

  • Ian Parrish

    I’ve actually seen screens that look a lot like this where the cancellation policy is a bit contradictory. I’ve seen it both when booking directly with European hotels and also with some third-party booking sites. They basically all say something similar to this:
    1) Free cancellation until noon the day before check-in.
    2) Cancellation will not result in a refund.

    I don’t know if this is just some screwed up software or an attempt to be dishonest, but I definitely don’t like it. In the OP’s case, I think the free cancellation must over-ride the later stipulations.

    The moral of the day has been to always take screenshots. I also use the credit card that has backed me up 100% every time I’ve had to dispute a problem.

  • ArizonaRoadWarrior

    I agree…if a hotel holds itself out as an ‘international’ hotel (where they list on their website that they have people speaking certain languages) or a hotel marketing itself to a specific group (i.e. English speakers), the hotel needs to make sure that they can deliver; their website is checked for clarity and completeness; etc.

    Back in 2005, my wife and I took a tour of China. The first hotel of the tour touted on its website and etc. that it was an ‘international hotel’ with staff that was fluent in English, etc. The only thing that the staff could speak was “Do you want a beer?” and that was limit to the restaurant. We stayed at a Marriot for a few days before the start of the tour and everyone from the front desk, gym, swimming pool, restaurant, etc. was fluent in English.

  • emanon256

    I think you are right. In the past the norm was always that hotel rooms could be canceled, though some had restrictions such as 48 hours, or 72 hours before arrival. It was rare to see the non-nonrefundable rates, which when offered weren’t at a very big discount. I always booked the refundable room because $4-10 a night difference was worth it to me. No I am starting to see refundable hotel rooms cost substantially more. On a recent search, I saw a non-refundable rate for $199 and a refundable rate for $279. I fear the hotels are going the way of the airlines and trying to make the norm non-refundable, and then offer fake perks like “Free Cancellations”. which aren’t really free. I hope I am wrong.

  • AJPeabody

    I knew that my smattering of French would come in handy here. The French language has two different words that both translate to the same English word, “deposit,” but have decidedly different meanings. I suspect that the French to English translation of the hotel’s website did not know we only have the one word. So, I googled and found the confirmation:

    deposit Translations

    noun

    (refundable) arrhes mpl

    (not refundable) acompte m

    Want to bet the french website used “acompte” and not “arrhes”?

  • Michael Viron

    In looking at the screenshot, it looks like they selected “English” (you can see the selection in the upper right corner) – so I would think that the hotel would ensure that information they have — especially policies that impact their guests and not originally written in English would translate correctly. There are, I believe, a number of services for businesses that offer that kind of translation review.

  • LFH0

    That sounds like a reasonable explanation where there is one key word or phrase that is problematic. But when I look at the screenshot, the entirety of the explanation of promotion is that there is a certain period in which one can cancel without charge. It just doesn’t seem as though all of that could be the result of the mis-translation of a single word.

  • Miami510

    Mes amis,

    Permit me to explain… even though I don’t speak French, I’ve “been around the block,” and offer you this interpretation. What they are saying is:

    “In order to get people to make a reservation at our hotel, we advertise that the money paid is refundable. We really don’t want to refund any money, so when called upon, we
    prevaricate, (fudge in the American vernacular) and say if you pay in advance, we don’t give you your money back… however if you don’t pay in advance on our weekend special, the last night is free, but the first two nights are not refundable.

    I hope our being transparent meets with your approval and we have the splendid opportunity to welcome you to our hotel at some future time. In closing, let me be perfectly clear: Our
    shower curtains are not transparent.”

  • AJPeabody

    There would be no mis-translation. Both Feench deposit words translate to the same English word. If the French speaker does not know that there is only one English word, he might think that the instruction to pay a deposit (non-refundable word) when translated into English would include the nonrefundable part of the meaning. After all, wouldn’t the person sending the deposit nonrefundable realize it was nonrefundable? Otherwise, we would have used the word deposit (refundable word).

    It’s the old unknown unknown biting the posterior scenario. Or, as my high school French teacher would point out, some French words are “false friends.”

  • LFH0

    I understand that part well. But what I’m getting it is the entirety of the provision. The screenshot reads:

    “Promo Internet Free Cancellation
    “Our cancellation policy is 48 hours before arrival without charge. In case of no show or late cancellation, the first night will be charged.”

    This entire description revolves around the period in which cancellation may be made without charge. And even in the case of “late” cancellation, the hotel is entitled only to the first night, not the entire amount. It does not appear that this is the result of either a mis-translation or a mis-understanding of a single word or phrase. As a whole it is much more than that. Maybe the hotel stated to an intermediary that a “un acompte” was required, and the intermediary added all of the detail that was thought to be intended. The only question in my mind is whether there is an intermediary that spoke for the hotel in posting this English information, or whether the hotel was being dishonest.

  • MarkKelling

    “FREE Cancellation” means they don’t charge you an extra fee to cancel the room they are keeping the money for you already paid them?

  • emanon256

    Just like complementary water, as opposed to complimentary water.

    Patron: “Why was I charged $5, you said the water was complimentary?”
    Waiter: “I said the water was complementary, not complimentary.

  • MarkKelling

    “It complements the room.”

    From a Chevy Chase / Beverly D’Angelo commercial for some online travel company as a take off of the Vacation movies.

  • MarkKelling

    Here is their current French version of the closest policy still in effect. Perfectly clear! :-) Actually much more complete than the English version in the screen shot in the article. “Non remboursable” is pretty precise and clear.

    “Promo Discount – Early Book & Pay -15%

    Réserver tôt pour profiter de nos meilleurs tarifs. La tarif n’inclus pas le petit déjeuner que vous pouvez prendre optionellement sur place avec un supplément d’ Euro 16,00 par personne par nuit.

    Cette tarif constitue un paiement au moment de la réservation et il est non remboursable.

    Annulation non remboursable

    Paiement immédiat, non remboursable. Délai d’annulation : Le montant engagé n’est pas remboursable, même en cas d’annulation ou de modification. Conditions de règlement : Pré-paiement par carte de crédit de la totalité du séjour débité lors de la réservation.

    Paiement Non Remboursable

    Paiement immédiat, non remboursable.
    Délai d’annulation : Le montant engagé n’est pas remboursable, même en cas d’annulation ou de modification. Conditions de règlement : Pré-paiement par carte de crédit de la totalité du séjour débité lors de la réservation.”

  • AH

    i’d buy that, AJ, except that the website – from the screen shots – seems to have been professionally designed, including the english translations. (no grammatical or syntax errors in those screen shots.)
    Fatima; however, seems to be using an online translator (looks to me like Bing) which mangles grammar, words and syntax.
    there is a difference between a professional website design, and a hotel employee who has limited english skills.
    (i can speak and read some french and spanish, as well as bits of german – and from those, can deduce some dutch and italian.)

  • AH

    mark, that’s the second option in chris’s original screen shot, not the one the OP booked.

  • AH

    last time i checked my dictionary, “prevaricate” is “lie”

  • Alan Gore

    Told you so, didn’t I? Non-refundable hotel room rates that are slightly lower than the old cancelable rates are now becoming the norm on hotel sites, with a scattering of those much-higher cancelable rates you cite. Next, watch for the cancelable rates to quietly disappear.

    This time, customers need to stand up and roar in unison, “We’re not giving in to this!” Name them and shame them online. Automatically give bad Yelp to any property that sticks it to us with such policies. Organize boycotts by travel agents. Do whatever it may take.

  • MarkKelling

    True, but I don;t seem to be able to get the original one to show up.

  • Miami510

    You’re right! That’s exactly what they were doing.

  • LFH0

    Both the French and English are clear. I don’t think the English version is in fact a translation of the French. Note how only the French version refers to the absence of breakfast and how only the English versions refers to “48 hours.” To me, these look like two entirely different sets of terms which, somehow, got linked together.

  • emanon256

    Ha! You did!! I hate to see this happening Sadly, I don’t think anything we do can change it. We may be the smart informed people who try to do something about it, but 90+% of people will only purchase on price alone without even looking at whether or not its refundable, and thats why things keep going down this road. Heck, I inform all of my friends and family and they still will only buy the cheapest option even if its non-refundable, and then whine when they can’t get their money back.

  • naoma

    I live in Paris 3 months each year – a vacation. I do not stay in HOTELS. We rent apartments from people we have met and seen their apartment. We have a great one now and know the owner. He takes us to and from the airport and is taking us to dinner this evening. He knows he has good tenants with us and treats us well. We also vacation in USA and use time shares. No hotels for me. I do not like dogs and my husband is very allergic so we get great treatment at time shares which DO NOT PERMIT ANY PETS. You bring one and face a huge fumigation fee. My husband speaks French — I do not — but never had any problem because I do not
    speak the language. Most everyone speaks English and they are friendly also.

  • Judy Serie Nagy

    Well, Chris, you can be happy that so many people read your stuff! And care that it’s presented properly. I book European hotels direct all the time, always read the fine print twice … but from now on I will be saving that screenshot about the details.