By Robert McGarvey
Going, going, gone are the days when a business traveler can call a hotel and cancel a room for that night without penalty if the call is made by 6 p.m. Hoteliers have figured out they can monetize your booking even if you don’t want it by imposing arbitrary deadlines for cost free cancellation.
Worse, the policies are all over the map. Most hotels want 24 to 72 hours notice. I have seen some that insist on a week’s advance cancellation. There is no consistency or uniformity, often none even within a specific chain.
That has to be a major worry for many business travelers.
How often do you have a business trip cancelled the day before departure? It happens. I’ve even have had cancellations on the day of! Not often but sometimes and, until now, I have been able to cancel hotel rooms without any penalties. (I also have always been able to cancel flights without penalty because I insist on booking fares that allow for that.)
Know that, below, we provide you with a cheat sheet that will help you know when your hotel’s deadline is for fee free cancellation. Sometimes. Not always because, again, there’s no real consistency. This isn’t a game rigged in our favor.
For starters, however, why have hotels overturned long established policy that allowed that fee free cancellation up to 6 p.m. the day of arrival? Hoteliers will tell you they can’t book rooms cancelled at the last minute. They also say a cancelled booking costs them money.
A good travel agent, by the way, often can cancel a room with little notice and no penalty for a client. Meeting planners almost always can.
Why can they do it and you can’t? Again: the hotelier wants to grab your dough whether you want the room or not.
The blunt fact is that – with or without your unwanted room – the typical hotel will have lots of empty rooms that night. The average hotel occupancy rate in the United States is 68%. On any given night one in three rooms goes unsold.
A different data set claims that in 2018 hotel occupancy hit a 30 year high when it reached 66.1%.
Anybody who tells you that if you had only cancelled your room earlier, then they could have sold it to another guest but your late cancellation costs them money is blowing smoke.
They don’t want to let you cancel scot-free because they hope to be able to shake some coins from your pockets.
Don’t let them.
- Marriott – 48 hours. If you want to cancel a room for Wednesday night, do it by mid-day Monday to be safe.
- Hilton – 48 hours. Some resorts impose a 72 hour cancellation policy. Always check when reserving.
- Hyatt – 48 hours – except “some” ask for more notice. Again, always ask.
- IHG – 24 hours at Holiday Inn, Candlewood Suites. Kimpton wants 48 hour notice.
- Ritz-Carlton – 7 days notice of cancellation. That’s right. A week.
- Fairmont – no set policy. Varies by property.
Frustrating? You bet. The bottomline is that it is incumbent on you to ask when booking.
Plenty more hotels now want cancellation penalties too. NYU professor Bjorn Hanson, who tracks hotel fee income, has said he sees many more hotels climbing on the cancellation fee bandwagon. For the hotel this is essentially expense free income. An unccupied room that is paid for is pure profit.
No wonder hoteliers love this fee.
What’s a traveler to do?
My advice has been and remains: don’t book until the same day of travel. No, you won’t have to sleep on a park bench. I have often checked availability in prime cities – Chicago, San Francisco, Washington DC, New York – and always find availability at the last minute.
Or TripAdvisor. I just looked for a room in Chicago tonight and TripAdvisor said about 75% of its hotel inventory had availability.
Don’t some hotels sell out? You bet. Very occasionally and not very often but some hotels do sell out. Many resorts definitely sell out for prime dates (good luck booking a July 4th stay in desirable Cape Cod even this early – many of the swankiest joints already have solid books of business). And I don’t think I have ever found availability at Marriott Marquis adjacent to McCormick Place in Chicago so, sure, sometimes even meetings hotels fill up.
But I have always found rooms in Chicago. Just not in walking distance to McCormick Place.
Ditto San Francisco.
So the prevailing rule is that if you hunt and if you have some flexibility, you will find a room and probably it will be convenient.
Paranoid? A day before travel – when that trip looks to be solid – check for rooms. If you fear scarcity, book then. You will probably travel the next day and not have to worry about cancellation fees.
But to be really safe here’s the three part rule book: Just say no to hotel cancellation fees. Book on the day of travel. Never pay a cancellation fee again.