By Christopher Elliott Travel columnist
Tribune Media Services
updated 2/17/2009 10:06:25 AM ET 2009-02-17T15:06:25
travel troubleshooter

Q: I'm having a problem with a hotel's valet parking service, and could use a little help. We recently stayed at the Mandarin Oriental in San Francisco. We valet parked our rental car and didn't pick it up until the next day.

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A month later we received a letter from our car rental company saying that the car was ticketed in a tow-away zone while it was under the care of the hotel's valet service. We had to pay a $60 fine plus an administrative fee of $25.

I called the hotel and was reassured that the independent company used by the Mandarin would reimburse us for the ticket. I was promised a call back. A week went by and we heard nothing, so I called the hotel again. A representative said we needed to fax a copy of the citation to the hotel in order to get reimbursed.

I've asked the authorities for a copy of the citation at least five times, but haven't received it yet. After several weeks with no response we appear to be at a dead end.

I'm irate that the Mandarin Hotel would treat guests in this manner. Can you help me get a refund?
— Kay Pratt, Philadelphia

A: The Mandarin should have refunded your parking ticket immediately instead of stringing you along while you waited for a fax from the city of San Francisco.

But that's not all it should have done differently. Parking customer cars in a tow-away zone? Probably not a good practice. Playing the outsourcing card (“It's not our fault — it's this company we work with”)? That's also problematic.

No one cares about a hotel's backroom business arrangements. I mean, does a property send guests to its housekeepers' union when they need fresh towels? Does it give a customer who is having trouble with its restaurant the number to its wholesale food service distributor? No, it takes responsibility for what happened and tries to fix it.

Instead of excuses, a Mandarin representative should have called you as promised to ask for the necessary paperwork. A casual observer might conclude that the hotel was dragging you along in the hopes that you would lose interest and go away. But I'm sure the hotel just got a little busy.

I think you could have handled this a little differently, too. Once you reached someone by phone, you should have immediately asked for an e-mail address for both the hotel and the valet company. Copying both parties on any future correspondence would have ensured that everyone had access to the case notes in the form of your previous e-mails.

You also overlooked two items. You might have asked the hotel if it would accept any other document besides a faxed or mailed citation. A credit card billing statement, an invoice or a citation number could have also done the trick. And second, you should have enlisted the help of your car rental agency in securing the necessary paperwork. (Government agencies are notoriously slow, but the odds are good that your agency has a copy of the document your hotel wants.)

I contacted Mandarin on your behalf. A representative said it would accept a citation notice from your car rental company. You faxed the notice to the hotel, and it cut you a check for $85.

Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. You can read more travel tips on his blog, or e-mail him at

© 2008 Christopher Elliott ... Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.


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