NEW YORK (MainStreet) – Taking a vacation isn’t exactly cheap, so what recourse do consumers have when their hotel accommodations turn out to be less than satisfactory?

Needless to say, it depends on the cause of your dissatisfaction.

For instance, should you show up at a hotel only to have the receptionist tell you that they are overbooked and don’t have a place for you to sleep that night, then, yes, the hotel needs to do something to remedy the situation.

“Hotels are typically responsible for finding a suitable alternative,” says Victor Owens, vice president of Hotels.com. This means that if the hotel that botched the reservation touts a four- or five-star rating, you have every right to demand that they put you up in another luxury facility or offer other adequate compensation in the form of a refund, free nights at a future date or travel vouchers. 

Now, let’s say you book a hotel online and arrive to crime scene tape, rodents or a police shoot out (hey, it happens). Can you cancel that reservation free of charge or is it simply a case of buyer beware?

Sadly, the law isn’t exactly on your side: Most hotels and travel search engines are careful to advertise cancellation policies on their websites and, according to Owens, the consumer is generally beholden to them once they book a room.

These policies will vary by establishment though, and while Lisa Fantino, an attorney and travel consultant for Wanderlust Women Travel, admits they have become more consumer-friendly over the years, many hotels typically require 24 hours’ notice for a guest to cancel without penalty. This means that those who show up, see bed bugs and decide to bolt to another hotel more often than not end up having to pay for their first night’s stay.  

These policies are similar to the ones employed by airlines, which will also compensate you when they are responsible for an inconvenience, but charge a fee if you yourself elect to cancel for any reason. (See MainStreet’s Passenger Bill of Rights.)
Another option is taking your case to court and arguing that the hotel is in breach of contract if conditions are, in fact, unsafe or unsanitary. However, getting out of the bill might cost more time – and money – than it’s worth. Your lawyer’s consultation fee, after all, is probably going to be considerably higher than what a grimy hotel charges for a night’s stay. 

An overnight stay at the Grand Resort Hotel and Convention Center, the current title holder for the dirtiest hotel in America, costs $68. Compare that to the national average billing rate for lawyers in America, according to Lawyers.com, at $284 per hour.

A better recourse for unhappy customers, Fantino says, is to put up a fight on premises.

“Most times, rather than face negative publicity, a strongly worded letter or discussion with management will result in a refund, courtesy stay and/or settlement,” she explains, especially “if litigation is threatened.”

There are also a few additional steps you can take to make sure your threats are taken seriously. For instance, you don’t want to suffer through the night only to complain that you had to sleep wrapped up in protective garbage bags the next morning.

“It’s much harder–if not impossible–to get a refund once you’ve stayed the night,” says Hilary Stockton, who runs the budget travel blog TravelSort.com. She advises that consumers return immediately to the reception desk and ask to be moved to a different room. If those accommodations prove to be just as dastardly, you can then try to demand a refund or, at the very least, ask that the offending establishment arrange to have you put up in another hotel. 

For those who aren’t comfortable getting loud, Owens says, the key is to get ahead of the problem.

Make sure, for instance, you know what the hotel’s cancellation policy is before you book with them. You can usually find this on the hotel’s website, but those who book over the phone should make sure to ask the customer service representative directly before giving their credit card number.  
More importantly, however, you need to do your research on the hotel itself.

“Do your homework,” Fantino advises, saying that consumers need to check online reviews on travel search engines, especially if an establishment looks questionable. You can also talk to travel agents who can speak to the quality and reputations of hotels in the area you are looking to visit.

What should you look for to avoid showing up at a hotel that is not quite as nice as advertised? Find out in MainStreet’s look at four red flags to watch out for when booking a hotel online!

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