That's not my hotel

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January 27, 2005 column - Lynne Warnicke’s all-inclusive Mexican resort is overbooked and she and her husband are sent to another property, where they bunk down in a dank basement room on a rock-hard bed. There’s no snorkeling and they get sick and spend most of their vacation recovering. What should the online agency Warnicke booked the hotel with do about it?

Q: Our honeymoon has been ruined and we need your help. We booked a five-day, all-inclusive vacation at Oasis Akumal, an all-inclusive resort near Cancun, Mexico on Expedia.

I had read about Akumal in a travel book and had dreamed of visiting the remote romantic snorkeling haven to swim with the turtles. But when we arrived, the desk attendant presented us with a letter dated one month earlier that said the hotel was overbooked.

They offered their “sincere apologies” and a promise of a complimentary four-night stay at the Akumal Oasis within the next six months.

The desk attendant informed us that they had space available for us at one of their sister properties located approximately 30 minutes away, the Oasis Puerto Adventuras. We felt as if we had no choice but to accept our new accommodations.

The hotel was far away from the remote romantic snorkeling and turtles. Our room was a substandard, rank, musty and moldy basement room with a broken air conditioner and a rock-hard bed with pancake pillows. It was obviously the last available room at the inn.

My husband and I became violently ill from the food and were sick for our entire stay. Other guests also got sick.

After our return to California we repeatedly contacted Expedia, but we never received a response or explanation from it. The voucher the hotel presented us with at our arrival also turned out to be completely useless as they could never honor it due to lack of availability.

Does having a confirmed reservation in writing with a prepaid credit card charge really mean anything?

— Lynne Warnicke Royal Kunia, Oahu

A: Overbooking is a common practice in the hotel business. Hotel reservations systems project that a certain number of guests are not going to show up, so they allow for a few extra reservations.

But what happened to you – getting an “apology” letter dated one month before your arrival – doesn’t appear to be a garden-variety overbooking. If I didn’t know any better (and I wasn’t there, so I wouldn’t) I’d say the hotel is deliberately accepting more reservations than it can handle with the intention of funneling some guests to its sister property.

But the blame for this disaster rests with your travel agent, Expedia. It should have known that your room was unavailable and should have contacted you and offered to rebook you at a comparable resort. It didn’t.

Does having a confirmed reservation mean something? Yes, but good luck pursuing a claim in a Mexican court. Actually, I would have considered disputing this charge on your credit card, since Expedia sold you something that it didn’t deliver. But the time for that has already passed, unfortunately.

I think this honeymoon from hell was completely preventable. First, even a cursory search on a travel review site such as TripAdvisor suggests that this isn’t the first time Oasis Akumal has overbooked. If you had read even one of the reviews, you might have had second thoughts about your honeymoon accommodations.

Second, you weren’t out of options when the hotel turned you away. You could have – and should have – phoned Expedia and told them you were denied the hotel room you had booked (and on your honeymoon, no less).

I asked Expedia to take another look at your case. A representative responded directly to you, acknowledging that you had been moved to the new property because of an overbooking. But, she added, the hotel operates a “functional snorkeling facility” and never received “any written note from you complaining about your experience at the hotel.” In addition, the hotel insisted that the voucher for a free stay was valid at “any of the Oasis properties” – not just the one you were supposed to visit.

As an acknowledgment of your inconvenience, Expedia issued a $75 “goodwill coupon” to your account. It’s usable on any future Expedia reservation.

I’m disappointed with Expedia’s response. It doesn’t matter if you bothered to put your complaint in writing or if your new hotel had a functioning snorkeling facility. Your honeymoon was ruined, and $75 in funny money is a funny way to apologize.

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 or visit his Web site. Your question may be published in a future story.