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Who’s charging $257 for a room I won’t use?

When Barbara Sloan cancels her hotel room, she sets off on a mission to find out why she's being billed $257. Her online agency insists the hotel is charging it, but is it?
/ Source: Tribune Media Services

Q: I recently canceled a reservation I had made through at the Sheraton Seattle Hotel.

When I called OneTravel, I was told I would have to pay a $257 cancellation fee. Sheraton says it wasn't their fee. I also contacted the wholesaler that worked with, and it says it didn't charge the fee, either.

So who's getting the money?

I emailed OneTravel repeatedly, and was finally told that Sheraton was charging OneTravel a $257 cancellation fee.

I'm retired, and losing this money would be a hardship. I know from reading your column you can get results, which we have not been able to do. We would certainly appreciate any help you can give us. — Barbara Sloan, Philadelphia

A: Looks as if you've got a real whodunit on your hands. Your online travel agent, OneTravel, is pointing the finger at Sheraton. A review of your correspondence suggests that the wholesaler pointed a finger back at OneTravel. So no one's taking responsibility for the fee.

How interesting. I guess they won't mind if you don't pay the fee then, right?

Wrong. I contacted OneTravel on your behalf, and it turns out that the wholesale company added a one-night penalty when you canceled. Your online agency charged a $34 processing fee.

That information should have been available to you before you booked your room — not after you decided to cancel. A OneTravel representative should have been able to give you a simple breakdown of the fees when you called.

I looked up the Seattle Sheraton property on OneTravel, and found the likely source of your confusion: A sluggish Web site that didn't reveal any details of the hotel's cancellation policy. My Web browser timed out a few times as it tried to access the information, and even when I attempted to book a room, I found no mention of the cancellation terms.

If I couldn't find the cancellation penalties, I wonder how many other guests couldn't either? And how many of them were shocked when they learned they would have to pay for one night, plus a "processing fee"?

When you're making travel arrangements, you have to weigh the cost of the deal. OneTravel offered an attractively priced room, but it came with some strings, notably a nebulous cancellation fee. Although the booking screen I saw failed to adequately disclose the charge, the site does an adequate job of reminding users that some fees apply to their bookings. (You can read OneTravel's terms and conditions here.)

Your sleuthing only exposed the hidden system of fees and kickbacks that lurk behind some hotel rates. In a situation like this, it's unclear who to appeal this kind of problem to. You asked everyone, but no one came to your aid.

I don't know if calling OneTravel helped you. Emailing the site is far more efficient, because you can enclose correspondence from the hotel and wholesaler, potentially leading to a faster resolution.

After I asked OneTravel about your case, it shared your complaint with the wholesaler, and both companies agreed to a full refund of the fees.