How to Complain to a Hotel

Complaining about a service failure and getting satisfactory resolution is never easy. It helps if you clearly identify the issue, the cause, and a solution that the business can offer to keep you as a happy customer. And that last part is key. Businesses want to keep happy customers. If you’re going to be an unreasonable jerk and threaten never to patronize them again, well, they’ll probably be glad to see you go. Keep that in mind as you read the rest of this post.

Two recent incidents — one submitted by a reader and another during my honeymoon — made me think that handling these complaints at a hotel can be very different from how they’re handled with an airline.

When something goes wrong on a plane, there’s usually not much that can be done about it. Sure, you can ask for a new meal, or you can ask to be re-seated (assuming there are any spare seats available). But more likely than not the problem occurred after you got locked into a narrow metal tube with 200 other people for the next six hours. The problem doesn’t get addressed until you’re already at your destination, when all the airline can do is offer a few extra miles or a discount on a future trip.

At a hotel, time is on your side. You probably have several hours before you need to go to bed your first night, giving the staff time to find another room or solve any issues with the existing room. There is almost always an even better room, even if you already have a suite. And hotels have other amenities they can offer to smooth over ruffled feathers during your stay.

All this depends on how responsive the hotel is to guests’ complaints, which itself often depends on how the customer handles the situation.

Pick Your Battles Wisely

A reader emailed me about a problem with the bed sheets at a Hyatt hotel. She was already upset because her Diamond upgrade wasn’t properly processed when she requested it, so the hotel had to put her in a standard room. And then in her room she found that the queen-sized bed had a very small mattress cover — something you might find on a rollaway.

No other rooms were available, but what made it worse is that the front desk agent started arguing with her about how it was “impossible” because all mattress covers were the same size. Clearly not, as the other queen bed in the room demonstrated. But that’s beside the point. The front desk shouldn’t be arguing with a customer.

The reader asked me: Is this worth complaining about? I told her the mattress pad wasn’t, but the agent’s behavior was. And I also told her not to bring up the suite upgrade. That’s corporate’s problem — the hotel would have honored the upgrade if it was entered correctly when the reservation was made.

In the morning she was able to speak with a manager, who apologized and sent up some wine and chocolate truffles to make up for the issue. I’m sure housekeeping also got a lecture and made doubly sure a properly sized mattress pad was on her bed that evening.

Remember what I said about time being on your side? It took about 12-18 hours for a satisfactory resolution — by which time a flight would be over — but the reader checked out happy.

But If You Don’t, Stay Calm and Reasonable

When one thing goes wrong, we start looking for other things that are wrong, too. I checked in to a Westin hotel during my honeymoon and received a complimentary upgrade on an award booking. Nice! But then I was told I had to pay for breakfast, and if I didn’t pay right then the price would go up 50%. What the… ?

This particular hotel normally offers complimentary breakfast on all its rates. But award bookings — even cash and points bookings like this one — are not included. If I had realized that, the math of using points would be very different, and I would have booked elsewhere.

Feeling taken advantage of, we went to the room where the situation got worse. While nearly all rooms at this hotel have an ocean view — and the room category I originally booked specifically mentioned one — this “upgrade” had a giant tree in front of the window. The patio was also pretty filthy. It seemed we were in the one neglected part of the hotel that never got maintained.

Then the power went out. And on. And out. Four times.

I tweeted to @SPG about the condition of the room and my dissatisfaction. They replied later saying the hotel was taking care of it, but the only message I got from the front desk was: “Oh, the power does go out now and then. It’s the power plant, not our fault.” I told @SPG again that I was not satisfied since the power was actually the least of my concerns. The next day I found the rooms director running all over the property trying to find me, so +1 to Starwood’s Twitter team.

We sat down for a chat and I explained — very calmly — how this situation escalated. I took the blame for the misunderstanding over breakfast (it was not explicitly included in the confirmation email), but I pointed out that the hotel seemed to be treating its award guests as second class. I said, unequivocally, that the maintenance issue with the room must have been going on for months, which she accepted. And then I said that when the hotel fails to take care of things within its control, it ends up with frustrated customers like me who start to blame it for things outside its control, like the power failures.

She offered an upgrade to a villa, which I refused because I was tired and only had 36 hours left at the property. The solution we settled on was to waive the breakfast charges. I think she got off easy, since I probably would have complained to corporate about that anyway.

Conclusion

Everyone has a different threshold for pain, and a different idea of what they think they’re entitled to. I don’t mean to judge what you think is worth complaining about. Maybe the examples in these two stories were silly, but I know much sillier complaints — believe me. The point is how this reader and I handled them. I think we had reasonable expectations, and we had a very clear idea of what we wanted to consider the situations resolved. We both got what we wanted. The hotels learned why we were upset and hopefully took action to address those issues before another guest encountered them.

I’ll end by saying that it helps to be flexible. On that stay during our honeymoon, Megan and I wondered if we should just leave. The rate wasn’t that expensive, and one benefit of award flights on United is you can always rebook. We could have easily gotten back in the taxi and headed to the airport, picking up the first flight to just about anywhere. And in retrospect, we should have. More problems occurred during — and after — our stay. But I’ll leave that for the trip report.

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Scott created Travel Codex after learning how to travel better on a budget during grad school. He now flies over 150,000 miles every year.
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  • GetToThePoints

    Spot on!! I have found that starting with corporate is the best place. If they are doing their job it will get to the property manager. Recently with Westin as well, we got an upgraded award room that was musty smelling which I initially thought was from being closed up. We never got enough towels to replenish what was there when we arrived. One day we had no hand towels. We had to call for toilet paper, we had to call maintenance for clogged sink, light bulbs were out in 2 lamps. It was ridiculous. We found out why the musty smell existed, 2 days before we left we had a hard rain which seeped in under the balcony door through a rotted out threashold. The carpet was soaked. Upon further examination you could see where messy and futile attempts were made at caulking this area. We did not get late checkout either.

    All of this was conveyed to SPG in a polite but direct manner. They responded for me to let them know if management did not respond which they did. Someone needed a major chewing for the housekeeping issues but the leak etc was a complete failure to care about the condition of the property. I did however get 48,000 points back out of the 96,000 for the stay. This was my suggestion which they concurred with, no problem. We had a nice vacation but the accommodations were not up to our standards nor SPG’s.

    • Elaine

      So you wrote corporate and let them take it up with the property? Or did you contact both at the same time?

  • MiamiFlyer

    Here is some thing I have found that supports your point of being specific in what you want. In a recent problem where a hotel did not honor my guaranteed room reservation, and was not able to find me another hotel, I laid out the issue in an email and suggested that provide a certain number of points (enough for a two night stay) to my account. They did. And I think that was fair. Similarly, after an involuntary downgrade on an airline, I asked the airline to redeposit the difference between the first class award and the coach award that I got. They not only did that, which they should have since I didn’t get FC, they doubled it. I was very impressed.

  • Straightahead

    You mention “one benefit of award flights on United is you can always rebook”. I’m not sure I know what you mean by this benefit. Could you elaborate?

  • http://www.willrunformiles.com/ Kathy K

    I think you got the points right! Accentuate the positive! Don’t go nuts when the problems are minor. I have so many stories of hotel “issues” to tell, but generally, when I’ve brought such issues to the hotel’s attention (very nicely, respectfully and carefully), its usually resolved in a more than positive way (especially when the hotel is Hyatt or Kimpton). I don’t usually blog about those scenarios…

  • Ken

    Being reasonable and specific is a must. I had a problematic room on an award stay (a loud party in the pool area outside our room lasting all night long), and we had to be moved at 1:00 am to a lesser maintained part of the hotel which did not even have air conditioning. At checkout I asked for a re-credit of half the award points for the stay. Seemed reasonable to me and the hotel agreed. I would go there again because of it.

  • Karen

    one benefit of United is you can always rebook award tickets??
    Even last minute?? Is there a fee?

    • Scottrick

      Fees vary with elite status. Platinum and 1K members do not pay a change fee on award tickets. But the ability to change a ticket is different from the fees charged to do so. With some carriers it’s not about the fee — they just don’t allow it, period.

  • SgFm

    I have had a favorable response from hotel management a couple of times recently, when we had some lapses. While staying at the Hyatt Madeleine in Paris, we had a room that had no working temperature control, and we woke in the middle of the night roasting hot, which we could only try to remedy by opening our window. When I spoke with the front desk later that day I immediately got a call from the MOD (right away he acknowledged that this was a known problem, which the hotel was in the process of having repaired) and he offered to move us. It was early evening, and we were checking out fairly early the next morning, so declined. We were then offered a refund of award points for one night, which I accepted, as I felt it was quite fair.
    Somewhat similarly in Thailand, while at a Sheraton resort, we had a problem with shoddy service from an outside vendor of scuba diving trips that the hotel used. When we returned from our day trip I spoke with the hotel manager and described our experiences, he too proactively offered a partial refund of points that we had used for this stay, again another example of fair compensation.
    In this era of Trip Advisor reviews, I think that any well run hotel is very wary of negative comments making their way into a review, and will go the distance to make a client happy. I do post on Trip Advisor, and when I have had a positive response by management to a problem, I have mentioned it in a review.

  • Shawn

    I had an issue years ago at a 5 star marriott resort. Bottom line was housekeeping forgot to close my door when they finished tidying up my room! I had been gone all day and night so for all I know it had been open for 12+ hours. I explained calmly my dissatisfaction over this and how I had been traveling for almost 10 days at this point so I had no idea if anything was missing? And how dozens of credit card receipts with my CC# were in the room. The managers offer? Breakfast the next day. Which was my last morning and I had a 7 hour cross country flight. I refused and pushed back. He ended up agreeing to pick up 1 of the 3 nights and my incidental charges of about $80. All in all I think that was fair and I left happy.

  • Rob A

    During one recent trip I twice had issues with hotels.

    In the first case I asked the gentleman who looked in charge (I discovered that he was the room manager) to sit down at the breakfast table with my son and me and courteously explained to him what it was about. He apologized, asked for suggestions on how to improve the hotel’s service, and since I needed to stay one night longer, waived the charge for that extra night.

    In the second case I emailed the general manager with a long list of complaints including among others the condition of the room, sloppy housekeeping and a broken ice machine. A couple of hours later he called and apologized profusely and offered to move me to a newly renovated room. A call from the duty manager followed and I was moved to an absolutely splendid junior suite. And the cost of my 3 night stay was entirely waived.

    Conclusion: be courteous, and even friendly when you make your point, and often they will go out of their way to make you happy.

  • Patt

    I made reservations in July for a “newly constructed” three room suite in Anaheim, with advertised views of Disneyland’s fireworks. When we arrived for our five day stay in October, I was given a suite with a window facing an elevator shaft. Oh, no! Considering I had called twice again after making the reservations to check on the property, I alerted the front desk to my concern before entering the room. I was told there would not be a problem with noise since the elevator wasn’t working. Wrong answer! I responded that I had checked twice regarding the view (not noise) and was assured that I would have a room with a view. “You do have a view,” the clerk responded, “you just need to go out on the balcony for it.” I countered that having to go outside (and in front of the room next door) was not mentioned on the website, or during the three conversations I had with the staff. I mentioned that I felt because I had booked early at a lower rate, that I was being assigned to the room with obstructed views. I asked for a 20% discount for the five nights, and we settled at 10%. I was happy with that, since I really had no other complaints. Additionally, I got an assurance that the main office would be reviewing the advertisements for those rooms to make sure they did lead people to believe the suites had views of the fireworks from the rooms. Seriously, even the standard rooms had views if they came onto a balcony.