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No room — and no refund

When Colin West arrives at the Howard Johnson Express in New York, there’s no room for him. He’s sent to another nearby hotel, but has to pay for the room himself. West gets his money back for the first hotel from Priceline, but does it owe him something for the new hotel, too?
/ Source: Tribune Media Services


What if you prepay for a hotel but there’s no room for you? I recently made a reservation through using the site’s Name Your Own Price feature, and got a room at Howard Johnson Express Inn New York City.

At least that’s what Priceline claimed. When I arrived at the hotel, I was told that they were overbooked and didn’t have a room for me. I was directed to another hotel, and at that point I assumed that there was some sort of partnership between the hotels and that payment at the second hotel had been taken care of.

But when I checked in at the second hotel, I was told that I would have to pay full price for the only room available, which cost $115 more than the Priceline room. It was late, I had a lot of luggage, and I felt as if I had no choice but to pay.

I contacted Priceline after my stay and it agreed to refund the original booking. But it would not cover the cost of the new hotel. I think Priceline should refund the money I spent on the second hotel, since that was the unexpected cost I incurred as a result of my room not being available. Is there anything I can do? — Colin West, New York

A: That shouldn’t have happened.

Hotels routinely accept more reservations than they have rooms. Their reservations systems calculate the number of likely “no-shows” and then permit them to oversell, which usually works.

Every now and then, everyone who books a room tries to check in, and then the property has to turn people away. It’s called “walking” the guest in industry-speak, and as someone who’s been walked a time or two, I can tell you it’s never a good thing.

Normally when a guest is walked, the occupied hotel covers the room rate at the new property. But when you’ve prepaid your room through Priceline’s Name Your Own Price feature, you probably got a good deal. It’s easy to understand why they’d want to give you a refund instead of paying for the new hotel. That could be costly to the hotel or Priceline, depending on who gets stuck with the bill.

You shouldn’t have left the Howard Johnson Express Inn so quickly. Instead, I would have phoned Priceline from the lobby. The online travel agency could have sent you to another property where your credit could be applied. It appears the folks at Howard Johnson just recommended another hotel, which wasn’t helpful.

At the very least, you should have asked whether the hotel with which you had the original reservation would cover your room at the next place. Never assume anything when you travel, especially when something unusual happens, like an overbooking situation.

I reviewed your correspondence with Priceline, and at first it appeared the company’s policy is to offer a refund, but nothing more. “Under the circumstances it is our policy to refund the reservation that we made for you,” a representative from Priceline’s executive offices wrote in an E-mail.

But after I contacted Priceline on your behalf, it became clear that this wasn’t the way the company does business. “The customer should not have been charged (for the new hotel room),” said Priceline spokesman Brian Ek. “We’ve apologized to Mr. West and have issued a refund.”

Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler
magazine and the host of “What You Get For The Money: Vacations” on the Fine Living Network. E-mail him at