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Hotel nicks non-smoking family for lighting up

Best Western charges a guest $250 for allegedly smoking in his room. But he doesn't smoke, nor do any members of his family. Can they ever get a refund?
/ Source: Tribune Media Services

Q: My brother, his wife and two kids, ages 17 and 20, recently visited me to attend my wedding. They booked a room for one night at the Best Western Yucca Valley Hotel & Suites. When I returned from my honeymoon, I learned the hotel had tacked on a $250 charge for smoking in a nonsmoking room.

My brother and his family do not smoke. Never have. When I called the hotel, I was told that a housekeeper had found ashes on the windowsill in the room. I asked if it was possible if one of the housekeepers or a workman had smoked in the room, not realizing that it was a nonsmoking room. I was told in no uncertain terms that none of the employees had smoked in the room.

I asked to speak with the manager and was told she was not there but I could leave my number and she would get back to me. I did this several times over the past two months, but the manager is never there. I've also tried to contact the hotel's owner, but I've never been able to get through to a real person. Can you help?
— Barbara Prestridge, Yucca Valley, Calif.

A: Best Western shouldn't have charged a $250 cleaning fee unless it had hard evidence that your brother and his family were lighting up in the room.

Finding cigarette ashes on the windowsill may work for the hotel, but not for me. Catching a guest with a cigarette in hand, yes. Cigarette butts in the garbage can? Sure.

But ashes on a ledge? I don't know about that.

If a hotel suspects a guest of smoking in a nonsmoking room, there's a right way and a wrong way of handling the situation. The right way is to speak with the guest before checkout, mentioning either the suspicious smell or evidence that someone was puffing away in the room. The wrong way is to not tell anyone about the charges and quietly add them to the final bill.

Am I saying these cleaning charges are bogus? Absolutely not. No one should be smoking in a hotel room, period. The stench of cigarette smoke lingers for many days and seeps into everything, drawing complaints from future guests. I have no sympathy for anyone who smokes in a nonsmoking room, no matter what their circumstances, and I think a $250 fee is letting them off easy. But they may have fined the wrong guest.

One thing about your account raised a red flag: The ages of your brother's children. Had you said they were 7 and 10, it wouldn't have made a difference. But at 17 and 20, you really can't be entirely sure that they aren't sneaking a smoke when mom and dad aren't looking. I'm not saying that happened, only that it makes it a little more difficult to disprove conclusively.

Your communication with Best Western took place entirely by phone, which didn't help your case. I would have sent a short, cordial e-mail to the hotel. It takes a little sleuthing. I couldn't find a Web form to file a complaint, so your best bet would have been to call the property and ask for an email address.

That sounds like a lot of trouble, but having a paper trail is important. In the unlikely event you have to take the hotel to small claims court, their responses will become valuable evidence. Also, should you have disputed the $250 charge on your credit card, the correspondence would have been useful.

It turns out that was unnecessary. I contacted Best Western on your behalf, and it offered you a $250 voucher, which you accepted.