Sunday, August 16, 2015
After vacation plans fade, reservation costs linger
S.H., a reader in California, had planned a three-day weekend getaway to the coast. She and her husband had booked their cottage a few months in advance. But two-and-a-half weeks before their holiday, it became clear they'd be unable to go due to the sudden health concerns of their adult son.
"My husband called the vacation rental office," writes S.H. He was told that if the three nights they reserved were not rebooked by someone else they'd be charged full price for each night that remained unbooked.
"I personally find this unethical, if not outright robbery," writes S.H.
To be fair, she notes that the cabin's cancellation policy is clearly stated on its website. Summer reservations require one month's cancellation notice to avoid being charged the full-price for the booked rooms.
"We were unable to follow this policy, due to the urgent medical needs of our son," writes S.H.
She writes that she can understand a business needing to protect itself from people who make reservations but never show up, but she feels that "it almost should be illegal to charge full price for unused rooms." Losing a deposit she can understand, "but not (paying) full price."
If their rooms went unbooked, the vacation they'd be unable to take would cost them $750.
"That's a lot of money to me," writes S.H., "plus the emotional upset that we are already experiencing over the health of our son!"
The establishment has a "very alluring" website, writes S.H. "I would want to eventually visit this place, but probably will not if I don't get my money back. We called them two weeks in advance to cancel, not the night before. I can understand forfeiting a deposit, maybe if they cannot re-book, but to have to pay the full price seems steep and unfair." Even if this policy is legal in California, "is it ethical?" she asks.
The website for the cottages is indeed alluring. Great coastal views. Links to strong reviews from publications like National Geographic Traveler and Lonely Planet.
But there's also a link on the home page to "terms and policies" and, as S.H. points out, the cancellation policy is clearly stated. (I'm not a lawyer, but the establishment doesn't seem guilty of hiding its policy from prospective visitors. It's written clearly and is easy to find on the website.)
Should the owner forgive S.H. and her husband for the cost of any days their cottage goes unrented? It's awful to think that S.H. will be saddled with the cost of rooms she won't use, but the owner is under no obligation to forgive the charges if the cottage goes unbooked for three nights.
The right thing to do is for S.H. or her husband to get in touch with the cottage owner, explain the situation, and see if he's willing to be flexible on the cancellation policy. At the very least, they could ask him, given the time of year, how likely it is he could re-book the cottage they reserved. They could also ask if the owner is willing, without charge, to switch their reservation to a time they might be able to come.
Ideally, the owner will be able to find others to rent the cottage where S.H. hoped to vacation with her husband. If he doesn't, sadly, S.H. is obligated to pay the charges.
Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business and The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apart, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School.
Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin
Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.