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Hotels Rethink Cancellation Policies
By Tony Mecia, The Charlotte Observer, N.C.
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News

Sep. 12, 2005 - When you book a room, hotels almost always highlight their cancellation policies: Unless you notify them in advance that you're not coming, they'll charge your credit card.

It seems straightforward. In reality, though, hotels often waive those policies as a gesture of goodwill.

Many travelers in the Carolinas had brushes with cancellation policies earlier this month after Hurricane Katrina. Just days before the Labor Day weekend, gas prices spiked, and supply disruptions led to shortages. Worries about the availability of fuel caused would-be travelers to re-evaluate their vacation plans.

Some hotels and motels didn't budge on their cancellation policies, arguing that gas was expected to be available over the weekend, which is traditionally one of the busiest of the year. Others, though, were more flexible because they didn't want to alienate customers.

Generally, hotels try to weigh the cost of an empty room against the cost of angering travelers who might stay there again, said Jerry Lotich, director of sales and marketing at Greensboro's Grandover Resort & Conference Center.

"About the time I hit you for a cancellation fee, you're probably going to tell 50 of your closest friends how horribly you were treated," he said. "That winds up costing me more than the $200 I'm out."

The resort was scheduled to have a group of about 20 people headed to town for a meeting shortly after the hurricane, but the group canceled after the deadline, saying gas shortages made it impossible for some members to attend. Even though Lotich was entitled to charge them, he "turned the other cheek," he said, in hopes they will reschedule the meeting at the Grandover.

But when the resort is busy -- around, say, the time of the International Home Furnishings Market in High Point -- the hotel tends to be more punitive for people who cancel late. That's because the resort is turning away business to hold the reservation, Lotich said.

The Grandover is an independent hotel that makes its own decisions on when to waive cancellation policies.

Some bigger hotel chains -- and those that franchise hotels -- also leave decision-making to the local level. For instance, Choice Hotels, which franchises brands including Comfort Inn and Econo Lodge, can't control what individual owners do, says Robin Ferrier, manager of media relations. But it is urging hotel operators to avoid charging no-shows and cancellation fees to people fleeing the Gulf Coast because of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath.

For travelers whose plans change at the last minute, local decision-making means they should try to talk to somebody on-site to get any fees waived, and the sooner the better.

If the person answering the phone refuses a request to waive cancellation charges, ask to speak to a manager, and argue your case.

The Star Alliance, the international consortium of airlines that includes US Airways, said last week it will be the first airline alliance to offer upgrade redemptions across its system.

US Airways frequent fliers will be able to redeem Dividend Miles for seat upgrades on partner carriers such as United, Air Canada and Lufthansa.

The additional benefit should be available with most Star Alliance airlines beginning in 2006. The alliance did not say how many miles would be needed for an upgrade.


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