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. 


Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to rightthing@comcast.net. 

(c) 2014 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

As the policy is clearly stated, the vacationer should be willing to pay (not happy, but willing). Calls are worth a try of course, but probably to no avail. This has to be a real problem to the destination as it would not be so clear.
Alan Owseichik
Greenfield, Ma.

Anonymous said...

Most small businesses – especially seasonal ones – operate on thin profit margins, so the loss of that budgeted $750 could mean as much or more to the owner as its loss to the unfortunate couple. To suggest that he is guilty of “outright robbery” for covering that loss (and only if he is unsuccessful in finding a replacement in a hurry) would be like him saying he’s not going to “fall for their sob story.” Good people shouldn’t go on the attack if they don’t know all the circumstances the other party has to deal with.

“Small print” (which apparently wasn’t even small in this case) usually serves a legitimate purpose. It’s not like the owner is trying to take advantage of the couple’s misfortune. He has bills to pay too. Maybe he couldn’t even afford a weekend getaway trip himself.

There is always a danger in planning anything far in advance. Nobody ever expects that things could happen to THEM. Ask any business owner, and they’ll tell you things happen “all the time.”

Phil Clutts

Anonymous said...

Jeffrey: I think of the many times I have written to you and your predecessor (s?) at “The Right Thing” over the years, my comments have been probably a third supportive, a third supportive with suggestions and a third not supportive.
Today’s column on the ethics of resort reservations left me with several questions.
The first is if you write or suggest the headline? “Vacations are time to get away from everyday stress” doesn’t seem to have much relation to the subject.
The one here is better.
Mainly, I think you gave a legal rather than an ethical answer, which is what S.H. asked for.
These days caveat emptor is more important than ever. Banks and other large companies hide verbiage in the small print removing your right to sue.
I am just this week finding that my 100% warranty for a faulty product has so far cost $2.54 in postage and may well go well beyond that in other freight and handling charges.
It was not made clear if S.H. made the mistake of paying up front more than just the deposit. A charge card “promise” is another possibility that leaves room for disagreement.
The time to make clear (and perhaps negotiate) the one month notice was at the beginning.
Without any reason to suspect the resort owner, there does not seem to be any guarantee that he couldn’t rent it without notifying S.H.
Thanks for your column.
Jim Armstrong

Jeffrey L. Seglin said...

Thanks all for your comments.

Mr. Armstrong, each newspaper or online publication that runs the column has an editor write a headline to go with it in that newspaper. The Tribune Syndicate sends out the column with the headline that you see on the blog. I generally post the column to the blog after it's had its run in newspapers and online publications that pick it up. But I'm not always certain which publication runs the column when since not every newspaper puts all of its material online.

I'm not sure where you read the column. In the column, I point out that the cottage owner makes the cancellation policy clear on his website. So I'm not convinced this is a matter of hiding the issue in the small print.

Vacation insurance might have helped the renters, but they hadn't purchased any before the fact.

For what it's worth, I haven't had any predecessors in writing the column. I've been writing The Right Thing in one form or another since September 1998.

Thanks for continuing to read the column and for taking the time to write. I hope you and others continue to do so.

Best,

J

Anonymous said...

I enjoy reading your column but I disagree with you today. I own and operate a small lodging property and it seems to me (biased as I am) S.H. IS being treated ethically and appropriately.

From your column it appears that S.H. had rented a vacation rental cottage rather than at a lodging property like a B&B or Inn. The company managing the vacation rental has a financial responsibility to the owner of the cottage and is required to adhere to the agreement including the cancellation policy.

However, the good news is that an agency gets many calls for available cottages during the summer season in California and so there is quite a good possibility that most of the nights would get re-booked.

If she had booked at a Bed & Breakfast, it still seems unethical to ask the innkeeper to bear the financial burden of S.H.'s current situation. (the policy was clear, listed and disclosed both prior to her reservation and most likely in her confirmation letter). The only potential fault I can see is if, in her confirmation letter, she was not advised to obtain trip cancellation insurance. (At properties with heavy cancellation penalties, an ethical innkeeper would provide this recommendation.)

Innkeepers set cancellation/change policies to cover their losses in the event of a 'last minute' change of circumstances. For some properties in large metropolitan areas, that might mean 24 hours notice, for other destinations, it can mean something more like what S.H. has with her cottage reservation. If the innkeeper is unable to find someone else to stay in the cottage, there is a loss of income.

You are recommending that the innkeeper alters their cancellation/change policy based on the reason someone is canceling a reservation. If one has a ‘good enough’ reason, then they shouldn’t be responsible for their reservation. If the innkeeper is treating all guests the same, with the same policy, regardless of what the policy is – it is fair.

In order to determine if the policy itself is ‘reasonable’, more information about the cottage and the destination would be required. Just as more information would be required to determine if S.H. had no other choice than to cancel her stay. We just have to take them at their word.

L. Sommers

Jeffrey L. Seglin said...

Dear L. Sommers,

In the column, I conclude that the cottage owner is perfectly within his or her rights to ask that the cancellation policy be honored. Here's how the column ends:

"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."

Suggesting that it would be good if the owner could find someone else to book the room does not suggest that he or she should have to foot the cost of the cancellation.

Best,

Jeffrey Seglin

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