Bad hotel room? How to ask for an upgrade or refund.


On the weekend of July 4th, I bounced around central and upstate New York on a road trip from New Jersey to Niagara Falls. After an overnight stay in Binghamton, NY, I moved on to Rochester, where I attended a Red Wings minor league baseball game and a diner for a hot dog and Genesee Cream Ale.

It was a nice night, but the room I returned to at a Holiday Inn was less than desirable. The air conditioning wasn’t cooling properly. The closet door was hanging off its hinges. When I cut my finger on a sharp piece of metal sticking out of the shower curtain rod, I knew I couldn’t stay.

Not every hotel room is going to be a winner, but that doesn’t mean you have to put up with sharp bits of metal in the shower — or insects, or noise, or unsafe hotel room conditions — in every situation.

Hotels suffer from the same staff shortages as everywhere else, so an unkempt bathroom or untidy breakfast area may not be a sign that a hotel is dead.

Start with reception, said NerdWallet travel expert Sally French. “They don’t have to tweet on the company’s main Twitter account that their hotels are dirty because there’s nothing the person running the company Twitter can do about it,” French said.

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Always be polite, “because the front desk person is human too,” she said. “Have some understanding of the situation you’re in and how much power you have to fix it.” The same goes for managing expectations. Thin towels in a $2,000 a night hotel room might be something to complain about, but for a $50 a night room? Not as much.

French also recommended documenting the problem with photographs. If you call from your mobile phone, you also have a log of how many calls you made and when. This way, if the problem isn’t resolved, you can escalate it to hotel management, or if it’s part of a hotel chain, to the chain’s customer service department, and show that you tried to solve the problem directly.

If you are unable to switch hotels or are upset but feel that switching to another hotel is not justified, you can also ask for something to make up for the inconvenience. For example, on a cross-country road trip in 2019, I stopped at a hotel that had mandatory valet parking, but none of the valet services working at the time could drive a stick, so I had to park the car myself. In return, the hotel waived the $50 per night parking fee.

When Sonja Sherwood and her husband drove to New Paltz, NY for their anniversary and the first night away from their son since birth, both a short vacation and a good night’s sleep were priorities. They had a beautiful day on a lake followed by a meteor shower, “but it’s an old hotel and there was water hammer in the pipes,” she said, describing it as a constant “clack, clack, clack.” Not good for sleeping.

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She asked the front desk clerk if they could switch rooms and shared her tale of woe with him: “We were first-time away parents, and a full night’s sleep was our anniversary gift for each other,” she said. He upgraded it to the penthouse.

If a situation is untenable or unsafe and staying is not an option, you can request a refund. Sometimes strength is required. On a trip to Stockholm, Kayt Sukel, who has traveled six continents and is no stranger to bumps along the travel road, was given a hotel room with a door that wouldn’t close, let alone lock. She and her son had arrived at the hotel late, and after checking in, the receptionist disappeared. She found a janitor who told her the clerk was unavailable and she couldn’t change rooms. She went to another hotel instead.

“But I didn’t leave until he gave me my last penny back,” she said.

Trying to work it out with the hotel is your best option, French said. If you booked the room through a third party website, a refund is not impossible, but it can be more difficult as the third party must first recover the money from the hotel before they can give you a refund.

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You can try to dispute the charge on your credit card, but that process can also take time because the card issuer needs to investigate and may not rule in your favor, French said. Instead, check if your card already includes travel insurance coverage. For example, a lost or damaged baggage policy can go beyond airline issues and also apply to a hotel damaging your bag if it was left in the checked baggage room. And of course, if you have travel insurance, check that the condition of your room is covered; this is usually the case if you have “cancel for any reason” coverage. This type of insurance would allow you to cancel even mid-trip and get “a significant percentage” reimbursed, which is why taking pictures is also important, French said.

As for my hotel room in Rochester, I finally received a refund.

I was supposed to stay at the hotel for two nights, but I checked out after one and went a day early to the next stop on my road trip. Given the state of the rest of the hotel — broken elevator and smashed wine bottle in uncleaned stairwell — I didn’t think it would be any better to be moved to another room, or that people working on it could control the front desk.

Instead, I emailed management directly with photos. I also pointed out that I’m a member of that hotel chain’s rewards program and that I booked the room with their hotel credit card — all things that can help, French said.

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I was promised a refund within a few hours. But when my points didn’t arrive five days later, or a week later, or a month later, I asked the hotel chain’s corporate customer service to intervene. Her response was that the hotel manager said I was lying and she had never promised me anything.

So I took French’s advice and my screenshots from emails promising a refund to social media. I tweeted about the situation and although I was angry, frustrated and accused of lying by the hotel manager, I did so without yelling in capital letters, shouting about wrongdoing or even mentioning the hotel’s name or location: only that I had stayed in one had the hotels of the mega chain and found this situation “weird”, added these screenshots and tagged the hotel’s corporate account.

The account asked me to direct message them the details and Viola I had my refund. I already used it on an October trip to Maine.

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