By Travel columnist
updated 9/19/2005 4:50:26 PM ET 2005-09-19T20:50:26

It happens all the time. You book a hotel room, only to find a better price later. But when Julia Rayan cancels her higher-priced room at Days Inn, she's in for an unpleasant surprise: Turns out there is at least one other reservation that went uncancelled. Now she is being charged for a room she didn't use. What's going on here?

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Q: I recently made a reservation through the Days Inn Web site. I booked a room for my family using its guaranteed best rate.

After a few hours, I determined that the AAA rate was better, so I canceled the original reservation and rebooked at the lower rate. I got to the hotel, gave the clerk my name, checked in, stayed for two nights and then checked out.

A few weeks later, when I got my Visa bill, I discovered an additional Days Inn charge equivalent to one night’s stay. Figuring it was a deposit that hadn’t been removed, I promptly called the hotel and was told that I had been charged a no-show penalty. Apparently, their system showed two reservations, plus the canceled reservation.

The clerk on the phone berated me for not telling them that I didn’t need the second room. She didn’t seem to care that I didn’t know I had two rooms booked.

When I asked her why no one said anything to me while I was there, she said it wasn’t the hotel’s problem. The corporate customer care representative figures it was a computer glitch resulting in a duplicate reservation, but the home office doesn’t seem to have much power over the hotel because it’s a franchise.

The hotel is ignoring my requests for copies of the reservations, and I really don’t have any proof that I didn’t make the second reservation. Please help me. I can’t afford to pay for showing up and not showing up all in the same weekend.

— Julia Rayan, Fanwood, NJ

A: You shouldn’t have to pay for a room you didn’t stay in.

Unfortunately, problems like this are all too common. And they almost always involve some kind of misunderstanding that is linked to a Web site or e-mail, or something else involving computers.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m no Luddite. But I’m starting to wonder if technology isn’t as much hindrance as help. I mean, when you cancel a reservation online, how can you be sure it went through?

Can you really believe the screen that says, “Thank you. Your reservation has been canceled.”? What lengths do you have to go to? Do you need an e-mail confirmation as well? Should get someone on the phone and ask for some other documentation in writing?

The fact is, you thought you had canceled your reservation. The Web site didn’t lead you to believe otherwise. Is that a user error — or a site error?

In retrospect, you probably should have phoned Days Inn when a confirmation of your cancellation wasn’t forthcoming. If you had received the cancellation notice by e-mail, you should have made a printout for your files. Just in case.

The lesson learned from your experience is that unless you have an e-mail verifying the cancellation, or some other documentation that proves you’ve notified the hotel that you’re not going to use the room, you may be in for an unpleasant surprise.

I contacted Cendant, Days Inn’s parent company, and asked it to take a look at your case.

“We have no absolute way of determining exactly what happened with the transaction,” said Jennifer Zimmerman, a company spokeswoman. “We know that in the past this type of situation has occurred because a guest has clicked the ‘Book it’ button several times if the system is too slow, resulting in multiple rooms being booked inadvertently.”

Days Inn apologized for the inconvenience and, as a “matter of good faith,” issued a refund on the no-show penalty.

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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