By Travel columnist
updated 3/28/2006 7:59:11 PM ET 2006-03-29T00:59:11

When Robert Donovan changes two back-to-back hotel reservations, the reservations agent assures him there will be no cancellation penalty. And he's right. Instead, Donovan's second reservation is canceled - and he's billed for a missed night. What's going on here? And is there any hope for a refund?

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Q: I recently made reservations at a Holiday Inn property in Philadelphia near a hospital where my daughter was receiving treatment. I also booked a room at a Holiday Inn in New York City, so I could take my daughter back to New York University, where she is a freshman.

I deliberately chose Holiday Inn because I am a member of Priority Club, its frequent-guest program.

The date of my daughter’s discharge was initially up in the air, and I had to change my reservations at both the Philadelphia and New York hotels when our departure was delayed a day. When I made these changes, I asked if there was a confirmation number for the changed reservations (I like to record reservation numbers in case I have questions or problems later on), and I was told that my initial confirmation number would do.

I was left with the impression that by keeping my business within the Holiday Inn chain, I would avoid any cancellation penalty in New York. But when I arrived in New York, I found that my reservation had actually been canceled and that I had to pay $500 for a missed first-night stay.

When I tried to go over the reservation history with the front desk employee, I was treated in a perfunctory manner. His tone implied that he felt I was trying to deceive him.

I’ve tried to appeal to a manager and have written a letter to Holiday Inn, but I’ve heard nothing. I am sure the strategy being used on me now is: “If we ignore him long enough, maybe he will just go away, and we can pretend we provided good customer satisfaction.”

Can you help me?

— Robert Donovan, Riverbank, Calif.

A: I can’t imagine that overcharging you, treating you rudely and then ignoring you is anyone’s idea of good customer service.

It is reasonable for you to assume that if you change a reservation but stay within a hotel chain, you will not be charged a “no-show” penalty. It is also reasonable to assume that a reservations agent will tell you if you will be billed for an extra night.

Hotel cancellation policies vary. Sometimes you’ll pay nothing (for example, if you cancel a day before arrival or if a natural disaster strikes) and sometimes you’ll have to pay part or all of the cost of the room.

When I tried to determine Holiday Inn’s chainwide cancellation policy, I ran into some difficulty. Even if you know to look at the Web site for the Holiday Inn’s parent company InterContinental Hotels Group, you would still be hard-pressed to unearth its policies for the Holiday Inn property you stayed in. I couldn’t.

Cancellation rules should be clearly stated on a hotel’s Web site — not just articulated by employees over the phone. That way, guests have some idea of what to expect when their plans change.

You were right to ask for a confirmation number, and you should have insisted on it. The best way to ensure that you don’t get stuck with a surprise $500 bill is to get everything in writing — even when it seems redundant and, yes, even when you’re told it isn’t necessary.

I contacted Holiday Inn and it checked its records. Sure enough, it had no record of your call. But that doesn’t mean the hotel didn’t try to resolve your case. It did — to a point.

According to a hotel spokeswoman, Virginia Bush Osborne, the hotel eventually did find the call record. “Once that was done, the guest relations agent handling the case attempted to contact Mr. Donovan via e-mail to resolve the case and issue his refund, but when he got a failed e-mail response, he then erroneously didn’t pursue it further via phone or regular mail,” she said. “The then-new agent mistakenly closed the case unresolved, which is why Mr. Donovan didn’t hear from us again.”

In the end, Holiday Inn issued you a full refund for your missed night in New York.

Christopher Elliott is National Geographic Traveler's ombudsman and a nationally syndicated columnist who specializes in solving your travel problems. Got a trip that needs fixing? Send him a note or visit his Web site. Your question may be published in a future story. Want to sound off about a story? Try visiting Elliott's forum.

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