Why won't Starwood let me change my reservation?

Carol Pratt is stuck with three pre-paid nights at a Starwood Hotel. Even though she wants to move the reservation by a few days, the hotel won't let her without losing all of her money. What's going on?

Q: I made a pre-paid reservation at the W New York Downtown. The rate description said it was nonrefundable and a penalty would apply for changes. When I tried to change it to a few days later, I was told that the reservation was actually nonchangeable, and that should I cancel it, I would lose the money and need to book three new nights.

I contacted the W hotel's central line and pointed out that the rate description for nonrefundable rates stated they were nonrefundable and nonchangeable. That's not the same thing as "a penalty for changes," which is the language in the terms for the rate I had booked.

I was essentially told that the penalty was 100 percent of the pre-paid room rate. As a result, I kept the original reservation, and made another for the extra two nights, which was cheaper than canceling and rebooking.

I emailed customer service asking for a review. I had been expecting to pay a higher daily rate and to pay some kind of penalty fee. But I received a prompt reply reiterating the first reservation agent's statements. I was told that pre-paid rates are "noncancelable, nonchangeable and nonrefundable" and that a penalty is charged for canceling, as well as that changes cannot be made.

The bottom line is that I am now paying more than $1,700 for five nights when, at most, I believe I should be paying $1,262 for three, at a higher daily rate, plus a reasonable penalty fee. I think Starwood's reply does not address the issue and that a "known glitch" on the rate description does not excuse them from adhering to the language on both their website and their confirmation email. Am I off base here? -- Carol Pratt, Washington

A: You are not off base at all. If anything, Starwood is off base. The way I see it, you're not canceling or changing your reservation, because you still intend to stay at the hotel on some of the days you had originally intended to be there.

The W Hotel, which is owned by Starwood, appears to be interpreting its own rules in a way that is most advantageous to the company. It is saying: If you make any change to this reservation, you lose everything, even if you intend to stay in the room for part of the original booking.

I've reviewed the correspondence between you and Starwood, and the interesting thing is, it knows it was wrong. "The wording of the cancellation policy in two different phrases is a known glitch," it says in an email to you. "Our Web Team is working as fast as possible to get this corrected." (This case was resolved several months ago, and the problem is now fixed.)

You took your case to the highest level you could, but were still getting form responses. By the way, I list all the higher-ups on my consumer advocacy site: http://elliott.org/contacts/w-hotels/.

Your next stop would have been a credit card dispute, which is something I recommend only as a last resort. Calling me was the right move.

I contacted Starwood on your behalf. A company representative got in touch with you immediately and suggested that in the future, you reach out to the hotel directly before taking your complaint to corporate. That's good advice.

The W changed your reservation to the three nights you wanted without a penalty fee, which is far more than you had asked it to do.

(Christopher Elliott is the author of "How to Be the World's Smartest Traveler (and Save Time, Money and Hassle)" (National Geographic). He's also the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the co-founder of the Consumer Travel Alliance, a nonprofit organization that advocates for travelers. Read more tips on his blog, elliott.org or e-mail him at chris@elliott.org. Christopher Elliott receives a great deal of reader mail, which he answers as quickly as possible, but because of a backlog of cases, your story may not be published for several months.)

(c)2013 CHRISTOPHER ELLIOTT DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC.

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