Kevin Hunt: Hotel Refuses His Coupon, Even With Rooms Available


We're on the road for today's edition of "Is It Just Me?" where no question is too small for The Bottom Line.

Q: "This concerns a hotel in Hadley, Mass., and a coupon book published by HotelCoupons.com. The green-covered booklet is distributed at rest stops and tourist centers along major thoroughfares as far west as Minnesota. They are regional issues with listings of hotel discounts for 'walk-in' customers.

"The rates don't apply to reservations, however. I've used the book before on trips to various destinations and they're very helpful at controlling costs. I've called ahead to see if there were rooms available, and when there were, I dropped in to the hotel as a 'walk-in' to get the better rate, often 50 percent of the standard 'rack rate.'

"On Oct. 18, I drove up to Amherst for my college homecoming. I looked in the coupon book and called around to see about room availability. Several places were booked, but the Howard Johnson Motor Lodge on Route 9 in Hadley had rooms available.

"I arrived at 6 p.m. Yes, there were rooms available. I presented the coupon. No, we can't honor it.

"The clerk referred to the minuscule type that says 'Based on availability.' Since he had just said that there were rooms available, this struck me as incongruous. A second desk clerk chimed in: 'Those coupons are invalid if we are more than 80 percent booked.'

"There is no notation of that on the coupon. I was expecting to pay $74 for a room. Because it was late and I was tired, I paid the going 'rack rate' which, with the taxes added, was more than $100 above that.

"Seems to me I'm entitled to the coupon rate that brought me there in the first place."

Brock Putnam, Litchfield

A: It would seem so, but that's not how the coupon program works.

What the Howard Johnson clerks told Putnam, says HotelCoupons.com customer service representative Diane Elderkin, was legitimate.

"This is also stated in the beginning of the [regional coupon] books," says Elderkin, who was referred to The Bottom Line by a spokeswoman for The Travel Media Group in Maitland, Fla., which owns HotelCoupons.com.

The site includes page-by-page reproductions of the regional books. The second page of the Northeast includes disclaimers such as "Based on Availability" printed in oversize bold type.

"These coupons are walk-in only," says Elderkin. "You can't make a reservation. They're based on availability. So what a hotel will do is, let's say they have 100 rooms. For a month, they'll set aside, let's say, 20 rooms for the month. Once they've fulfilled those rooms for the month they'll no longer accept a coupon. "

Putnam's mistake, says Elderkin, was not calling ahead to confirm a room's availability at the coupon rate.

"It's highly, highly suggested," says Elderkin. "Travelers will call and say, 'Do you have rooms available and [the hotels] will say yes all day, but they need to be a little bit more specific. They have to say, 'Hey, do you have any rooms available — I have a coupon with me. Will you accept the coupon?"

Elderkin also says the clerk correctly told Putnam the hotel was not obligated to honor the coupon because it had reached 80 percent occupancy."

The coupon book, in fact, encourages travelers to call ahead and mention the coupon. It's the only way to guarantee the lower rate.

Putnam didn't get it this time, but next time he won't be fooled.

Remember, it's not just you. Other people want to know, too. Send your questions, big or small, to The Bottom Line at khunt@courant.com.

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