So there you are. It's 10 o'clock the night after a holiday in the middle of France. Next to nothing is open except the boutique hotel you booked online, which already took an hour of wandering through a dark, Gallic village to find.
You speak barely a word of French. Your host speaks enough English to communicate that he'd like another 100 euros up front for the room, that it comes without a lock and he intends to tack on a massive surcharge to cover the "costs" of heat and electricity.
It all ends poorly.
Now, after refusing to pay and getting ejected (I'm talking about myself of course), finding a Best Western wasn't much of a problem, even on one of France's many days off. Nor was walking through the gas lit streets of a medieval city; I should suffer like that more often. No, what occupied my mind through the hunt for a new room, checking in and later while poking at the fried egg on my pizza was this:
I paid for that room in advance.
It's a problem as old as vacations themselves. Travel is a major investment of time and money, but what happens when something goes wrong? It's not unreasonable to want to get some of that money back, especially the disruption costs still more money to fix.
Figuring out how to get that refund can make a big difference to your travel plans, whether it's from a Marriott Resort in Cleveland or a run-down bungalow outside of Ankara. Here are five tips to keep in mind:
Figure out when to walk away.
I promise I'm not being snarky here, but sometimes discretion truly is the better part of valor. In other words, don't go around picking fights you can't win or chasing Pyrrhic victories.
When it comes to getting a refund, no one wants to be that shrill customer who flips out over every misplaced ice cube and misaligned salad plate, and that goes double when accounting for language and culture barriers. So first and foremost, ask yourself whether this is an amount of money worth fighting for.
Hundreds of dollars are probably worth trying to recoup, but a $10 sandwich? Is that really worth blowing up the afternoon? Vacation time is limited and at a certain point more valuable than the money.
Too, pay attention to whether this is someplace actually likely to give a refund. Don't give up right away (we've do have some good ideas coming), but trust your instincts. If your gut says that arguing will go nowhere, don't waste your time on a moral victory.
Hotel rooms and flights account for the two biggest expenses of most trips, usually the two you can't afford to write off. As a result when things go wrong with these plans, they can go disastrously wrong. Not only are you stuck scrambling for travel and accommodation, but rebooking and lost fares can blow up an entire budget.
So pay attention to when you can get some of that money back.
"It's pretty cut-and-dried when it comes to the airlines," said Jeanenne Tornatore, senior editor with Orbitz. "If it's a weather related issue, you're not going to get anything for your delay. If it's something that could be prevented or could be rectified by the airline, you absolutely do have the right as a customer to get some sort of compensation for your issue."
For example, she said, mechanical issues or crew-related delays give a customer every right to complain and request compensation. Don't be afraid to think that through either. Weather related delays aren't subject to compensation, but how did the airline handle it?
If weather grounded the plane and everyone got smoothly rebooked for tomorrow morning, great. If, instead, the airline held a Thunderdome-like scrum for the last three tickets not already snapped up by platinum elite… well, make a phone call.
"It's a little more subjective when you're dealing with hotels," Tornatore said. "The airlines have their policies pretty tight in terms of 'if a customer comes to you with this complaint, this is what we're going to compensate.' For hotels, every hotel is managed differently with different people working at the front desk, so it can be a different experience every time."
The first thing to remember is to raise complaints up front. If your room smells like a combination of sadness and wet feet, with a resident lizard, the front desk might be able to do something about it.
They'll probably show less sympathy if you raise the issue after already staying in the room and naming the gecko Rodney.
Make any expectations clear and up front as much as possible. If you have any deal breakers, note them at time of booking. If a swimming pool is essential, say so. That way there'll be no confusion or plausible deniability when you demand a refund because theirs has a thick layer of moss and a potential crocodile infestation.
Finally, cash-based hotels are fairly common in much of the world and nothing to be worried about. Just, don't pay for more than one night in advance.
Work with third parties.
Perhaps the biggest problem with getting a refund on the road is simple distance. You don't want to blow up a vacation arguing over refunds, and when you get home it's not like you can call the Bangkok Better Business Bureau.
One good way to isolate this problem is to book, as often as possible, through third parties who will answer from the comforts of home.
Booking through a third party is also a good idea, Tornatore said, because it gives another set of objective standards to match your refund request against.
"If it's something where you're at your hotel and unhappy with the quality," she said, "you can absolutely contact the website that you booked it through and say, 'I booked this hotel through you and this is what it said, and this was the star rating, and I got there and it wasn't that.'"
"We have had instances with similar circumstances, and if it's not up to the standards of what it was represented on the website then we absolutely have compensated people in the past," Tornatore added.
Objectivity is good. The more you can point to a black and white failure, the harder it will be for a vendor to deny that something went legitimately wrong. Speaking of which…
Notice when something was done wrong vs. went wrong.
You will enjoy the most success when something has been "done" wrong, when a vendor fails to meet those black-and-white expectations. Did you order the steak and get a stale beer? Did the hotel lock your passport in a hotel safe? Can you refer to the multiple wolf spiders you found in the bedding?
All of these are excellent reasons to insist on a refund, and most businesses will accommodate. When you can point to an unambiguous mistake on their part or a clear failure to deliver the product, even a slippery business will usually make things right.
This is as opposed to when things "went" wrong and made you unhappy with the service.
"Went wrong" situations are more ambiguous and much tougher to argue… you're unhappy, sure, but the business technically lived up to the letter of the bargain. I'm not saying don't pick the fight, but pay attention. You'll do much better on the black-and-white issues than the gray areas.
Editors' pick: Originally published March 15.