By November 11, 2004 column
Special to msnbc.com
updated 1/10/2005 3:19:25 PM ET 2005-01-10T20:19:25

You booked a standard, double-occupancy room online. But when you check in, the hotel is oversold and you're offered half a suite and a rollaway bed. Should you get your money back? One upset hotel guest thinks so. Find out what you are - and aren't - entitled to when your hotel is overbooked and see how this case is resolved. Plus, learn how to get better results when you've got a dispute with any travel company.

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Q: I booked a hotel room through Hotwire.com. But when I arrived at the property, they had sold out all of their regular rooms. I was offered a "parlor" room, which was basically the living room part of a suite. It had a dining table, sitting chairs a TV and a bathroom, but no bed.

When I went to sleep on the rollaway bed, my feet completely hung off the end of it. It did not meet my definition of acceptable accommodations, nor do I think it met Hotwire's.

I e-mailed Hotwire after I returned and asked for my money back for that night. I said Hotwire hadn't upheld its sales contract and guarantee as posted on its site.

Hotwire responded by offering me a $50 coupon for a future stay, which wasn't sufficient. I disputed my credit-card charge, but Visa sided with Hotwire - it said all sales on Hotwire are final. I want my money back. Can you help me?

-- Dave Shefferman

A: If you're promised a standard, double-occupancy room, it seems to me you ought to get one. End of story.

What you ended up with was half a room - and half a bed. To make matters worse, it seemed as if Hotwire was only willing to take half the responsibility for what happened.

It's easy to see why. Since Hotwire is a reseller of travel, it can't determine when a hotel overbooks. So for all intents and purposes, it is being held accountable for something it can't control.

Why would an intermediary like Hotwire make the guarantee it does? Because hotels only rarely overbook and in almost every case they deliver exactly the room they promised, according to spokeswoman Amy Bohutinsky.

But what happens when the system breaks down?

No matter what the hotel says or does, the final responsibility rests with Hotwire, which sold you the hotel room. If it guarantees you a certain room, it must deliver it.

As it turns out, the hotel offered you a comparable room at a sister property, which you turned down. It found a double-occupancy room for you the next night, but that was too little, too late.

The question is, do you deserve all of your money back even though you received a room - or just partial compensation? Hotwire's offer of a $50 voucher was a good start, and just before you contacted me, the hotel was also working with you on a credit for one night's stay.

I think a $50 credit and a room night would have been sufficient. After all, you did have a room to stay in that night, even if things were a little tight.

I've reviewed your e-mails with Hotwire, and I believe what kept you from receiving more compensation than you did was the tone you took with its customer service representatives. You were aggressive, threatening - at times also condescending.

Although I understand your frustration with the process, I'm convinced that you would have accomplished far more by being polite but firm.

In one of your last e-mails to Hotwire, you threatened to call the media. That would be me. And yes, getting an ombudsman involved worked. Hotwire promptly coughed up a refund for the night you spend in the parlor room and the hotel came through with a free room night. Hotwire even apologized for the inconvenience.

I think that's an overly generous resolution, and to be completely honest with you, I feel used.

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