This is a very long post, but you can consider it a condensed guide to budget travel. :P

You don’t have to know me very well to know that I am not a big fan of America’s current version of the capitalist economy, one that has grown into a system largely governed by large corporations, endless and often pointless rules, laws, and regulations, and bureaucratic red tape. I think sadly, we have a system that may once have been designed to protect and empower the “average guy” and the “small business owner”, but has instead become one where everything that was once helpful has been replaced with the mantra, “I’m sorry, but there’s just nothing we can do. This is our policy”.

A dear friend told me recently there is nothing he dislikes more than feeling helpless, and I don’t think this is an uncommon sentiment. Unfortunately, “the system” often enrages me because it leads to a feeling of helplessness and being trapped by things that were initially and supposedly designed for the benefit of the individual. One of the things that stresses me out more than anything in the world is calling customer support, tech support, or the “dispute resolution” department of any company. Every time, you get a different person who will read you the same policy out of the same manual, and they are very fond of the phrase “I’m sorry you’re experiencing this situation, but there is nothing more we can do.”

As you may have noticed, I’ve not posted here in a long time, and that was because I spent 15 or 16 days travelling up and down the East Coast. There are a LOT of stories that resulted from that trip, positive and negative, and I’m really very happy I got to see so many people who are very dear to my heart in such a short period of time. However, there were some stressful road bumps along the way, and one of them had to do with staying in a “budget tourist hotel” on Central Park West in Manhattan.

Having lived in NYC for a number of years, I do not usually book a hotel when I am in town, nor do I stay in that particular neighbourhood, which is plagued with tourist traps. (Those who live in NYC find both tourists and $18 breakfasts annoying by nature, and although I haven’t resided there in ages, my sentiments haven’t changed.) However, since I use Hotels.Com to book my travel reservations, I had accumulated a free night at a hotel…so, I figured, what better experience than to actually not sleep on a friend’s couch when in NYC?

(Note: When in doubt, always choose your friend’s couch, especially in NYC.)

The debacle started on check-in, where I handed them my ID, credit card, and reservation. Because the room was slightly more expensive than the credit I’d had in Welcome Rewards, the room was $11, which I happily pre-paid. I also had about $100 in cash on me, intending to hand it over as the “deposit for incidentals” most hotels require. I then found out that the “refundable deposit” was $200, more than the price of the room. I quibbled about this, because it is not mentioned in the Hotels.com information that a deposit is required, or what the deposit is. They showed me paperwork where the deposit is mentioned in the fine print; it was from Expedia. I showed them my paperwork, where it was not mentioned. Therefore, I felt quite misled and tricked, as it was too late to cancel my reservation and book a different hotel. Also, it was about 100 degrees outside and I’d just spent the day traveling. So, they told me in slightly more polite words that if I didn’t like their policies, I could go elsewhere. The front desk clerk also mentioned off-handedly, “Oh, someone else just had a similar problem earlier today.”

I begrudgingly let them “hold” the $200 deposit, and to add insult to injury, my bank (who I’d love to rail about, but I should have some vestiges of privacy, so I’m not going to tell the entire world where I bank, but it is a fairly large financial institution that is actually gaining in popularity lately.) charged an additional $40 fee for conducting a “pre-authorization hold”. They also assured me it would be refunded.

Long story short, it’s taken 5 calls each to the bank and the hotel, numerous e-mails, and faxes, and an offer on my end to send over a copy of the receipt for the voided deposit that the hotel issues…but well over a week later, my funds are still being held. I’ve written to the hotel about my dissatisfaction, called the bank, contacted Hotels.com…but really, people don’t seem that interested in responding. I was finally told by the bank that if the hotel did not send over all the essential paperwork to lift the hold, it would take 30 days for the money to be returned to my account. Since I’ve been traveling instead of working for the past 2 weeks, I kind of want the money back NOT a month from now.

For those who are interested, here’s the communication I sent to the Belnord Hotel (incidentally, the only way to get any information was through their website. The front desk clerks, who seem confused by sentences that are too complicated because most speak English well but as a second language, are not even aware they have an accounting department, and the “manager’ failed to return my call on three different occasions:

To whom it may concern:

I have been playing “phone tag” between this hotel and my credit card company for days. I can’t begin to tell you how displeased I am with this situation. First, I booked a room at the Belnord Hotel as a “free night reward” via Hotels.com, only to learn that I was going to be charged a $200 deposit for a one-night stay (which far exceeded the price of the room, even if it had not been a reward.). Then, my bank added another $40 pre-authorization hold without my knowledge. So, my “free room” ended up costing me $250. (don’t worry; I’m filing a complaint with Hotels.com because in the fine print, nothing is mentioned about the excessive deposit.)

In any case, I paid the deposit, and a week later, the funds are still “pending”. I’ve had numerous people at your hotel and at my credit card company tell me how holds and voided transactions work…but on my third call to the credit card company, I was told exactly what needs to be done to release the funds because the hotel DID NOT void the transaction properly or according to the card company’s protocol.

This is an issue the hotel has to take care of; I have done all I can do on my end, and the bank cannot void the transaction without the information requested. I hope this issue is addressed in a timely fashion; I’m very frustrated about all the calls I’ve had to make regarding this matter. Every time I contact the hotel, I get a different person, and rarely does anyone have any answers or return my calls. One person said I needed to have my bank e-mail the hotel; however, calling the bank, this is not the case. It is the hotel’s responsibility to contact the credit card company with said information.

Thank you for your cooperation. “

Fair enough, right? Two days go by before I get any response. Then, this, which was encouraging:

“Thank you for contacting the Belnord Hotel. We apologize that you are being troubled over the release of funds from the deposit. Please understand once we void the deposit it should be released. Each bank takes a certain amount of days to remove the hold and in a few cases, such as yours, request something in writing. Unfortunately, because it is so few we do not know unless the customer contacts us and informs us of the banks requirement. Please understand we are not holding the money and we are unsure why your bank insists that it is the property not releasing the funds. The Voided slip you were given at check out is the proof that the transaction was indeed voided and the money released from our end.

We have had the accounting department fax the letter with the information requested to your bank prior to sending this email so that we can assure you of our commitment in helping you receive your funds back quickly.

Best regards,

Customer Care

Belnord Hotel”

Of course, I call the bank the next day to verify they received my documents, but the money is still “pending”. After speaking to three different people at the bank (most of the “customer service representatives” don’t seem to have an awareness of anything beyond the basics written in the manual, and hell is more likely to freeze over than you getting to talk to the same person about your problem. The result is me needing to explain this frustrating story every time I call either the hotel or the bank, which frankly makes me wish there was a button that released a fist from the phone that punched the other person in the face.)

I finally discover the hotel sent the extensive list of information via fax, but neglected to send one document. Therefore, even though there are 10 other documents and me calling every day, the funds cannot be released.

I contact the hotel through both phone and e-mail, trying to get someone to fax this missing document. About 36 hours later, and a particularly frustrating call to my bank with a guy who knew nothing, went away to help me, and came back with a fax number I already had, I have this exchange with the hotel.

“To Whom It May Concern:

I am continuing to be troubled over the matter of the deposit that has not been returned to my bank account.. I have been in persistent communication with both this hotel and my bank for days, and the funds have STILL not been returned. I also am getting no reply to my e-mail requests, and calls to the hotel seem to indicate nobody knows who I need to speak with. It is, to put it mildly, frustrating.

The bank has told me the reason the funds are still being held is because you did not fax a copy of the Guest Folio along with the other materials. They need to you to fax a copy of the Guest Folio ASAP in order to complete the transaction.

It has been over a week, and there is nothing I can do. The bank requires specific paperwork from the hotel, and this key piece of paperwork was not sent with the rest. If you could please direct me to the name and contact information of the person in charge of accounts at your property so I am aware of whom I need to speak with, or simply fax the required information the bank is asking for, this matter can be more quickly resolved.

If it is not resolved by the end of the week, I will have to go to the trouble of filing a “disputed charge”. :( I would appreciate avoiding this headache by simply hearing from your hotel and having the proper information faxed to my bank.

Thank you for your assistance”

Finally, a reply from the hotel (which is so old-school they still use an @aol address, even though they have their own domain name.):

“We have faxed over all the information again. We apologize but we have never had so many problems with a bank before, this is a first. We hope that this fax will resolve the issue with them and you receive your money promptly.

Best regards,

Customer Care

Belnord Hotel”

Of course, I realise perfectly well that they likely faxed the exact same set of documents, sans the missing document the bank needs, meaning nothing will be accomplished. I could be more optimistic, but I realise I will likely have to have the same combative conversation and explain the situation to an entirely new person again tomorrow. Doing this every day not only makes me angry, it’s starting to ruin my day. I asked the bank if they could please contact the hotel directly, and this was their response:

Bank:“We’re so sorry we can’t help you, but it’s against company policy to contact third parties about financial transactions.”

Alayna:“But this is the number I was told to call for transaction disputes. I have a dispute. I would like you to contact the other party with whom I have the dispute.”

Bank:“Ma’am, you will need to contact them directly and have them fill out the required paperwork.

Alayna:“They are not doing this. That is why I called you, because I can’t get any help or answers.”

Bank:“This is a dispute between you and the merchant.”

Alayna:“Obviously. So why do you have a dispute hotline if you don’t actually work to help others solve disputes?”

(more repetition of unhelpful jibberish until I hang up the phone.)

Of course, since Hotels.com got me into this mess by tricking me into a “reward” where I ended up paying twice what my “reward” was worth, I contacted them, also. I naively expected them to care. They didn’t, and not only did they not intercede in the situation, they didn’t even bother to respond.

But, since everything I bitch about is obviously brilliant, here’s my letter to Hotels.Com:

To whom it may concern:

This is not a question, but a general comment on a recent frustrating and displeasing experience using this website. I am sorry to send this, because I have used Hotels.com for many years to book, but on a recent trip that spanned 6 cities and was very tight on both time and budget, I had the worst possible experience redeeming a “free night” booked with my Welcome Rewards.

I booked a room at the Belnord Hotel as a “free night reward” via Hotels.com….only to learn upon arrival that I was going to be charged a $200 deposit for a one-night stay (which far exceeded the price of the room, even if it had not been a reward.). I protested this, and they told me it was in the fine print on Expedia’s website. When I handed them all the print from your website, where I actually booked, they agreed no such clause was included. I pointed out I’d never have knowingly booked a room where the deposit was greater than the nightly price of the room. However, they rudely told me I could either pay the deposit or find another place to stay. Then, my bank added another $40 pre-authorization hold without my knowledge. So, my “free room” ended up costing me $250.

I have been playing “phone tag” between this hotel and my credit card company for days. I can’t begin to tell you how displeased I am with this situation. A week later, the funds are still “pending”. I’ve had numerous people at your hotel and at my credit card company tell me how holds and voided transactions work…but on my third call to the credit card company, I was told exactly what needs to be done to release the funds because the hotel DID NOT void the transaction properly or according to the card company’s protocol.

Every time I contact the hotel, I get a different person, and rarely does anyone have any answers or return my calls. One person said I needed to have my bank e-mail the hotel; however, calling the bank, this is not the case. It is the hotel’s responsibility to contact the credit card company with said information.

The hotel claims they’ve faxed over the information to release the hold, but I am going to have to make a fourth set of calls tomorrow.

In my eyes, this is completely and utterly ridiculous. A customer should know PRECISELY what they are required to pay when checking into an establishment, and a “surprise” deposit worth more than the cost of a room that takes over a week to be refunded is in no way a “reward”. On top of it, the management is downright rude and uncooperative upon attempts to rectify the situation, and keep claiming they bear no responsibility. Frankly, I’m more inclined to trust a credit card company in these matters than such a disorganized hotel.

I was so frustrated that this came about during my two-week trip, and there was little I could do until I returned home. What a debacle! The manager even admitted upon my check-in, and surprise over the deposit, “We just had another person with a similar situation”.

It seems almost fraudulent for business to be conducted in this way, and is a recipe for leaving less financially prepared travelers stranded. I hope, in the future, Hotels. com will either display precisely what is expected upon check in, or disassociate with hotels that are less than honest. The entire situation has left me quite disenchanted, and realising there’s no such thing as a free lunch…or a free room.”

I’m not surprised I did not receive an apology, a “let’s make things right”, or even an indication of caring in the slightest from Hotels.com. Losing one customer isn’t going to hurt them, so it was rather silly to waste time thinking the company would find my dissatisfaction relevant. I’m hoping that in posting this, enough people who have had similar situations will read about this story, and think twice before redeeming “rewards” and booking hotels in general.

I was fortunate in that my stay in the 144-square-foot room at Belnord (seriously, you likely have a closet or bathroom bigger than where I stayed.) was the only hotel I had to book on my trip. Of course, we did pay for a week at the motel in Jersey Shore, but their practices are very old fashioned. Deposit is $20 in cash so you don’t lose your key. Period. My kind of straightforward travel.

Other cities, friends and family graciously agreed to host me (even though after only one night with the family, I was considering checking into a hotel, but that’s another story for another time.), and I do hope I wasn’t too much of an imposition on anyone. I have learned that, by and large, smaller and less expensive hotels give you less grief and are more accommodating than anywhere where lodging is over $150 a night. I have also learned that staying with people who like you enough to be willing to have you around for a few days is not only a cheaper alternative, but far more enjoyable, since you actually have real time to catch up with those you care about. On the other hand, I’ve also figured out that for most people, no matter how close your relationship, three or four days of having someone around non-stop is enough to make them sad that you’re leaving, but just slightly happy that you will no longer be in their space. It’s not so much they’re happy you’re leaving, they just wish maybe you could go away for a day or two and come back, because most people need their quiet time. *laughs*

I highly recommend for travelers:

1) Read the fine print, and don’t expect that the hotel or the site you’re booking through is being honest with you.

2) Recognize that you’ll get better service and people will actually give a shit if you stay in the hotel where the key feature is “wireless internet” instead of “hardwood floors and elegant 1920′s crystal chandeliers.”. You don’t have to stay at the Motel 6, but you’re not looking for a new home. The nicest hotel in town will cause you the biggest headache. (Thanks for the lesson, Marriott in Durham, NC.)

3) Carry a giant stack of cash to the hotel. Not the entire trip…just prior to check in. Insist on peeling out a bunch of 20′s, or even better yet, 100′s. Insist on making your deposit in cash, and do not leave without your cash. You may look shady, but there’s no “hold” on cash.

4) The system is designed to screw you over. Whenever possible, find alternatives to participating, because if something goes wrong…well, you may be screwed, but locating someone who cares is difficult.

5) Make sure to write a blog bitching about those who have wronged you, because there’s nothing else you can do.

6) Express love and appreciation to the friends who bought you dinners, martinis, offered you a place to stay, entertained you, conversed with you, traveled with you, created cool experiences for you, and generally made you feel like an awesome and valued person in a world that mostly isn’t required to care about you one way or the other…for no other reason than being genuinely happy to see you. That’s kind of one of the best things about life, isn’t it, knowing that others care and just like being around you?

7) Hotels do not care, nor do they like being around you. Attitude is to be expected.