After the impatient thug repeated his demand, "Your money or your life," Jack Benny's "I'm thinking it over" became a classic American comedy routine. Although chances are you won't face that choice any time soon, you may well face the less dire but still perplexing choice, "Your money or your trip."
Here's a typical case. You've prepaid for a week in a hotel to take advantage of a great nonrefundable rate, but when you arrive, you find the accommodations unacceptable. Whether you find a specific problem -- a noisy disco next door, leaky plumbing, unappetizing food at an all-inclusive, a faulty air-conditioner, bedbugs, or something else -- or a room that just isn't up to what you expected, you don't want to stay there. What do you do? Stay and try to get the problem solved, or bail out and go somewhere else? Although there's no one-size-fits-all answer, my take is that too many people elect to save their money when saving their trip might have been a better response.
As more and more of you opt for nonrefundable discount deals, or book through a nonrefundable program such as Hotwire or Priceline, you're increasingly likely to encounter such a problem, especially with accommodations. You know from the start that your economy-class flight will be lousy, and the big cruise lines usually deliver what they promise. But an extended stay in an unacceptable hotel, resort, or vacation rental, where you expect to spend several days or even weeks, poses a serious problem. Here are my suggestions for avoiding problems where you can, and coping with them where you can't.
1. Minimize risks in advance. Where you can, buy from or through some supplier or agency with a presence in the United States. Pursuing a claim and taking legal action are relatively easy with a U.S.-based supplier and almost impossible with a foreign supplier. Don't rely on your credit card to compensate you -- chargeback protection applies only when a supplier fails to deliver something, not when you're dissatisfied.
2. Nail down the important details before you pay, and make sure you know what the supplier promises contractually. Figure that you aren't entitled to anything that isn't in the official contract and fine print. An agent's assurance, "Sure, we'll get you an ocean-front room" is meaningless unless you can document that promise in your reservation record, in writing, or as an e-mail response.
3. Don't expect more than the supplier or agency promises. If you arrange a hotel through Priceline, for example, you may want two beds, but Priceline guarantees only accommodations for two, and that often means one queen bed. A vacation rental with a promised "bath" may provide a tub but not a shower, especially in Europe.
4. As soon as you spot a problem -- usually either when you first arrive or after the first night -- decide on your basic strategy. Do you think you can solve the problem, or get it solved, without paying extra? Are you willing to pay something extra to solve the problem, and if so, how much? Or is the situation inherently not correctable?
5. If you decide to stay and try for a solution, let the local manager/agent know exactly what you want -- a different room, a move to a different property, or whatever. Depending on circumstances, you might also want to call an agency back home. If the solution requires some sort of upgrade, offer to pay a reasonable amount. And -- most important -- give the supplier no more than one day to solve the problem. Don't fall for a series of ongoing "manana" promises and don't accept "it's the other guy's fault" excuses.
6. If the responsible party can't solve your problem within the promised time, bail out, find another accommodation, and go after your original supplier as hard as required for compensation. This, of course, is the "save your trip, not your money" choice. But bailing out not only saves your trip, it also strengthens your claim for a refund after you return. After all, replacing money may be difficult, but replacing time is impossible.