A surprise $250 smoking fee from my hotel — but I don’t smoke!

Seth Elsen receives a mysterious $250 charge on his credit card after staying at a La Quinta hotel. Now the property’s general manager is hiding from him, he says. Can he get a refund?

Question: I recently stayed at a La Quinta Inn and Suites in Walla Walla, Wash., with two guests. We were there one night, and everything went fine.

Two nights after I checked out, I noticed a $250 charge on my credit card, in addition to the $100 fee for the room. I called, talked with an assistant manager, and was told that it was a smoking charge, and that I needed to talk to the general manager about it.

I asked when she’d be in, and was told the next morning. I didn’t get a call back. I called again during the weekend, talking to other front desk people, trying to find out when the manager would be in.

I left several voice messages, and tried to call the next day, but the manager didn’t answer. I felt my calls were being screened, so my girlfriend, who stayed with me at the hotel, tried calling, and was transferred right away. I then took over the phone.

The manager told me to file a credit card dispute, but that she couldn’t help me, because she wasn’t present during the inspection of the hotel, contrary to what the assistant manager had told me. She explained that a team of three employees go through a room that is suspected of being smoked in, and they don’t normally reverse these claims.

I asked if she had any evidence after she claimed it smelled of smoke, and she said, “I’m not aware of any, but I’ll check and call you back tomorrow.” I never got a call back.

I am a college student; $250 is a lot of money for me. I have never touched alcohol, drugs, or cigarettes in my life. One of my guests has asthma, and my girlfriend also has never smoked. I’ve reported this to the Washington State Attorney’s office and have disputed this charge on my credit card, but I’m afraid the dispute might not go my way. Can you help? — Seth Elsen, St. Cloud, Minn.

Answer: If La Quinta wanted to charge you a $250 cleaning fee, then it should have notified you of the problem after your stay and provided you with evidence of the damage. It did neither. Instead, it charged your card without so much as a courtesy call. Then, when you discovered the fee on your account, it appeared to avoid you.

That doesn’t seem right.

If I didn’t know any better, I would say La Quinta is trying to make a little extra money from its guests with these charges. But just like La Quinta, I don’t really have any hard evidence that this is happening, let alone on a broader scale. (But if it were, it wouldn’t surprise me.)

I’m really puzzled that the general manager appeared to avoid you and then advised you to dispute your credit card charges. That’s kind of odd. Normally, a hotel can provide a receipt for cleaning services or photographic evidence (ashes on the bedspread or burn marks in the carpet). Advising you to “just dispute the charge” is missing a few really important steps in the resolution process.

I’m not sure how this could have been avoided. Do we now have to take photos of our hotel rooms before checking out? That seems ridiculous, but maybe that would have helped you. If you don’t have pictures, or some other evidence that you’re smoke-free, how do you prove to your credit card company that you didn’t light up in your room?

I contacted La Quinta on your behalf. A representative said the corporate office contacted the hotel and had concluded this was a “training opportunity.” In other words, something went wrong on the La Quinta side. I would agree.

La Quinta said it would not fight your credit card dispute. You have received a full refund.

Is it too difficult to appeal "cleaning" charges like the one La Quinta imposed on Seth Elsen?

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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 the new forum.

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  • technomage1

    I’ve stayed at several nonsmoking hotels that smelled of smoke. Each time I’ve called the front desk immediately upon entering the room to let them know. So far I’ve never been charged but it always concerns me since the cleaning fees aren’t cheap.

  • Chris Johnson

    Now these are the kind of stories I enjoy reading about. In any case, good job getting this guy’s charge reversed. I didn’t vote though because nothing like this ever happened to me. I would be filing a chargeback if it did though, this smells of one big scam, or a mistake, where an employee charged the wrong room, or charged the right room on the wrong day and either didn’t want to fix the problem or didn’t know they screwed up. I have no idea, other than paying by credit card, how you can protect yourself against BS like this though. After all, how you can prove a negative? But I would certainly be filing a dispute and writing letters to the right people at the corporate offices. Total crap for them charging this and then trying to blow smoke in your eyes (sorry I couldn’t resist saying it).

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Hotels seem very quick to charge credit cards, especially after the fact. Whether its minibar charges or smoke charges. I’ve been fortunate, I’ve been able to get mine reversed easily.

    The one time I had difficulty was at a Hilton Garden Inn. I noticed a $200+ charge on my credit card. I called the hotel and was informed that the duvet was missing. This was a new one on me. I asked them, who in their right mind wants to steal your old duvet, that a million guests have done who know what on? And how would someone covertly carry an entire king sized duvet pass the front desk? They admitted that it did seem unlikely.

    I decided it was time to pimp the law degree. I wrote a long letter to the GM using my legal stationary and she immediately reversed the charges. Go Bruins.

  • EdB

    “Do we now have to take photos of our hotel rooms before checking out?”

    How do you take pictures of a smell since that seems to be the only evidence the hotels seem to be able to provide.

    The GM sounds like she needs to find a new job. Why would any business want a customer to file a dispute instead of just refunding to money? It costs the business when they lose a dispute.

  • Cybrsk8r

    Do we now need to take an air sample with us? Maybe a jelly jar should be standard travel gear.

    Of course, the hotel might just decide to charge an “air fee” since you’re removing some of the air from their room.

  • Don Spilky

    Thanks Chris, for a story that gets back to your “core values”!

  • BillCCC

    Appealing a charge like this one is always easy. You always have the option of a CC dispute. If you mean appealing a charge and then receiving a refund, apology or other compensation then perhaps not so easy.

    In this case the hotel should have been able to provide some type of documentation for why they added the $250.00. I wonder what training has been carried out?

  • EdB

    Probably better training on how to dispute these bogus charges so they don’t lose the CC dispute. *grin*

  • Joel Wechsler

    Rather than ask the OP to dispute the charge the hotel should have processed a refund to her credit card. Quicker and cleaner.

  • MarkKelling

    Strange the hotel would tell anyone to dispute a charge. There are fees involved in disputes that the merchant has to pay even if they win. Too many disputes that go in the favor of the customer and it reflects negatively on the merchant and enough total disputes and they can be barred from accepting credit cards. Sounds like the “training opportunity” should also include making the manager aware of the costs involved in handling credit card issues.

    I have never been charged a smoking fee for hotel rooms so far even though many times I have ended up in a room that smelled like there was a fire at a cigarette factory in there. I always immediately demand to be moved to a different room when this happens and always get moved (maybe the resulting room is not as “good” as the original one, but at least it doesn’t reek). Thankfully, since more and more hotels are going smoke free, this is becoming a less frequent occurrence.

    The only time I have ever had an issue was with a rental car. I was given a “non-smoking” car that had obviously been smoked in from the smell present as well as the ashes everywhere an burn marks on the carpet. Since it was very late at night and I had gotten off a very long flight and I had a bad head cold, I didn’t really notice until I was on my way. I drove back to the renal location, but they had closed for the night. I went back first thing in the morning to get a replacement. First they said they would never rent a smoking car to someone who requested a non-smoking one. Then the manager said that they really had no way of noticing if a car had been smoked in. (Really? All you had to do was sniff. Maybe all the employees at that location were smokers and they could’t tell by smell. But they sure could have seen the other signs.) Then they claimed I was the one who smoked up the car and wanted to avoid the cleaning charge by claiming the car was rented to me that way! I did finally get a different vehicle and was not charged any additional fees. I have not rented from that company since.

  • http://phoenixjustice.blogspot.com/ Phoenix Justice

    And cheaper. Most credit card processors charge a hefty fee for each disputed charge, normally in the range of $35 to $50. So in reality, their little “training opportunity” cost them more than if they had just processed a refund. And the processors keep track of how many disputed charges you have and can end your processing account, which is a death sentence to many businesses.

  • sirwired

    I ended up in a room that had been smoked in once, and by being REALLY polite to the desk clerk and just asking for them to run the ozone machine, she insisted on upgrading us to the best room in the place. (The most notable feature was a HUGE two-person hot tub in the room. Not bad for an $89 room at a Holiday Inn Express.)

  • jim6555

    It is strange that the hotel told the customer to continue to pursue the dispute through the credit card company. I believe that merchants are charged approximately $25 every time a dispute is resolved in the customer’s favor.

  • Joe_D_Messina

    Down vote must be from a USC fan?

  • Joe_D_Messina

    Perhaps the next version of Google Glass will include olfactory recording capability! All the better to ignore the people actually with you in favor of your virtual world.

  • Jan

    As a sad side note to this story, I went to the TravelAdvisor site to check out the hotel’s ratings, which are average. I was curious to see if the charges are an ongoing issue with this hotel, however, the biggest complaint is that there are no stairs. Unfortunately, I now have side bar advertisements for hotels in Walla Walla during my web surfing.

  • Alan Gore

    This OP probably gave off that ‘young and vulnerable’ vibe that, combined with the far-away-from-home factor, brings out the scammers.

    So after we have taken those “before” pictures of our rental car, do we all have to use chemical sniffers to prove that our hotel room was smoke-free on checkout? Does anyone make an iPhone attachment that does this?

  • Cybrsk8r

    Bluetooth headsets, Google Glass. Little by little we’re turning into The Borg.

  • DavidYoung2

    I fear these may become for hotels what bogus damage claims are for car rental companies; a source of ‘add-on revenue’ that’s very hard to prove either way. At least with a car you can take before and after pictures that might give you a fighting chance. But what can you do here — take air samples?

  • Mary

    To Markelling–thanks for the tip about asking for a smoke free rental car. We just made reservations and I need to call and request that.
    Glad to see the charges for the hotel were refunded.

  • Seth

    Unfortunately, I had used a debit card, which drew out the process quite a bit more, along with staff avoiding my calls.

  • Seth

    Our room didn’t smell like smoke, just a musty smell as it was a sub-level room. Their “evidence” was odor, ashes on window sill, then they amended their story to say we kicked out the window screen.

  • Carver Clark Farrow


  • technomage1

    Who knows when that happened? I can imagine that the ashes could have been from several guests ago as the maid could easily miss this. While I agree that hotels should charge guests for damage they do, it’s on them to ensure they charge the right guest.

  • emanon256

    Maybe the next iPhoen will have air sampling capability along with an app called Smell-o-phone.

  • emanon256

    Wow, I feel for the OP and and glad it got resolved. That sounds like a horrible GM, not even brave enough to talk to the OP about it.
    I do wonder in these cases; how does the hotel prove someone smoked, and how does someone prove they didn’t after they left? I seriously doubt the hotel will hire a cleaning service, they simply spray the room with bad air freshener and as soon as it wears off the smoke smell comes back.
    I personally hate the smell of smoke, I have asthma and the only things that trigger it are cigarette smoke and cats. I always asked to be moved at hotels if the room smells at all, and always ask for a new rental car.
    Sadly, I have a loaner car right now that smells like smoke. I volunteered my car for an emissions study and the study people picked up my car and dropped of a rental while I was at work. Since its not from a rental place, but owned by the engineering company, I had no way to change the car. I did ask when they dropped it off and the guy was just a driver who was given this car and told to get mine, he said I could refuse it and they would cancel my participation, so I choose to go with it. Now if they smoke in my car, I am going to have words with them. But I imagine it was a past participant who smoked in the car. Why do people do that? Just seems so inconsiderate to me.

  • LFH0

    So is a traveler better off using cash, so that this type of nonsense can’t be pulled by hotels? Or do the benefits of using a credit credit remain greater since a traveler can use the card issuer to resolve disputes relating to the base charge? I’m not sure if the answer is clear.

  • lvswhippets

    It is often hard in other countries to get a non smoking room, although one is requested. I got stuck in one in Germany-reeked of tobacco-& ended up with a bad case of lung problems for remainder of my trip. I always go prepared now.

  • JenniferFinger

    In this case, I don’t see how photos would have proved that the writer isn’t responsible for smoking-evidence of smoking usually isn’t visible unless there’s an ashtray or wastebasket containing cigarette butts. If Elsen didn’t smoke, he wouldn’t have left any cigarette butts. Usually evidence of smoking is detected by smell which can’t be photographed.

  • LonnieC

    Prepared? How?

  • lvswhippets

    I have special masks which filter the air & always carry antibiotics & steroid inhalers. Hopefully I can also open windows. But regardless I still travel!!

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    The problem is that many hotels require a credit card “for incidentals” even if you have no intention of partaking. Cash not accepted. I suspect that it’s a subtle way of customer screening much like rental car companies.

  • LonnieC

    I see. Thanks.

  • bodega3

    You can use cash, but you have to talk with the hotel first and find out what the cash deposit requirement is at checkin. I use to handle a lot of hotel reservations for youth soccer teams and many families didn’t have credit cards. It is often $200 or more for a deposit at check in, then they go to the room, check it out. This actually might be better as they hotel has to address any issues before you leave, so you wouldn’t get any surprise charge down the line.

  • bayareascott

    The “Go Bruins” alone is enough to get an up vote from me!

  • RoboKaren

    I’m torn as I’ve been in enough smokey “non-smoking” rooms that I wished violators were charged more, and the funds actually used to deodorize the rooms.

  • Chester P. Chucklebutt

    Resistance is futile.

  • Pixie

    Usually hotels only charge if there is “proof” of smoking (ashes, burns, cigs in the garbage). For example, if you do smoke but only smoke outside, your clothes still smell and can make the room smell, but we only charge if we find cigarettes in the garbage. We prefer that you don’t smoke at all in or near our hotel. It is almost impossible to clear a room of cigarette smoke, even if it is from a casual smoker’s clothes.

  • Pixie

    The cash damage deposit is absolutely the way to go. Make the cleaning crew evaluate the room quickly, get your deposit and go!

  • Pixie

    If we charge a smoking fee, it usually is used to cover the cost of a night without rental while we clean the room and remove the smells.

  • EdB

    And how do hotels justify charging that fee when the only “proof” was a discarded cigarette package in the trash? A piece of trash I picked up from outside my room where someone else had dropped it and I just tried being helpful and discarded it. No good deed ever goes unpunished.

  • loedra1

    I recently stayed overnight at a motel in Missouri where I was informed that my card was authorized to pay up to $50 if housekeeping staff reported any damages, including smoking in the non-smoking room, when the room was prepared for the next patron, in addition to the charge for the stay. When I protested that I would have no way to confirm that such damage was legitimate, I was told that I could leave a $50 cash deposit, and someone would accompany me to the room before my departure to approve a refund of the deposit . I agreed to that option and got my deposit back the next morning, but my departure was delayed by nearly an hour for the room check and for correcting multiple errors in card charges, partly as a result of the cash deposit and from sloppy bookkeeping. I was offered a 20% reduction on a future overnight stay at that motel as an apology.

  • Heather Dabreu

    This just happened to me recently. Only I am a smoker, but went outside many times to smoke. The fee seems so strange to me and the manager is avoiding my calls as well. I am beginning to think that the $250 fee was racially motivated! What can be done?