Hotel employees are people, too -- people under a lot of pressure. And although you might not have noticed it, there's a price to be paid for the dirt-cheap hotel rates you've seen lately. The lodging industry is cutting staff, freezing salaries and eliminating perks for its workers.
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"It can't be overstated how much power a hotel clerk wields," says Cyrus Webb, a former hotel employee who has worked at the front desk and managed hotels. "Front-desk employees know what rooms are the best, which have a great view, and which offer extra amenities. On the other hand, they know which rooms would not be at the top of a guest's list."
And guess who goes in those rooms? You will, if you tick them off. Here are five ways hotel employees exact their revenge on difficult guests, and what you can do to avoid it:
1. MAKE YOU WAIT.
Ever checked into a hotel, only to find your room wasn't ready? Well, maybe it was ready, but the front-desk employee didn't like your attitude. "For guests who are rude, drunk or just obnoxious, a clerk may well make them wait," says Michael Matthews, a retired hotelier in Tucson, Ariz. How long you spend in "time out" depends on the seriousness of their crime, according to people who have experienced the wait (and I include myself among them). It may be a "Have a seat, we'll be with you in a minute" for someone with a less-than-polite attitude to "Your room is still occupied, what's your cell phone number?" for something more serious. "Guests really are not aware of the power of a front desk clerk," adds Matthews.
How to avoid it? Remain calm. Sometimes your room really isn't ready yet, and it doesn't mean the hotel employee is necessarily out to get you. If it makes any difference, staying calm will get you into your room faster.
2. FREEZE YOUR CREDIT CARD.
Hotels routinely place an authorization "hold" on your credit card that equals the full cost of the room nights, tax and an estimate of incidentals. "If the guest were particularly annoying, the clerk could place a huge hold on the card, rendering it unusable for any other purchases," says David Chen, a hotel executive in Hawaii. He recalls it happening to a honeymooning couple that checked in with the only credit card they had brought along. Once the hotel placed its hold, their card was declined for all other purchases during the stay. "Even calling the merchant provider to release the hold did not fix the problem, because the reversal takes two to five days to work its way through the various provider networks," he recalls. In that particular case, Chen believes that particular "hold" was unintentional. But others are not.
How to avoid it? Carry a second credit card or debit card. Or bring lots of cash.
3. ASSIGN YOU THE LEAST DESIRABLE ROOM.
That's probably the easiest way to get back at a guest for being rude or just looking like they don't belong. Ian Spector was sent down a long hall to one of the worst rooms in the house when he checked in at an upscale hotel in San Diego recently. "I couldn't help but think that because I was under 30, the check-in staff figured they could put me in the crappy room," says Spector, a Web developer who was in town for a technology conference. "The in-room bathroom was really cramped and awkward." Stories like this are the stuff of travel legends: The hotel employees take a look at you and decide you're in the wrong place, or that they don't like you, and you're sent off to Siberia.
How to avoid it? Don't check into a five-star hotel in jeans and a T-shirt, even if you're on vacation. And for goodness sakes, be nice to the employees.
4. FIND AN EXTRACURRICULAR WAY TO TORTURE YOU.
True story: When Margot Chapman checked into a New York hotel recently, she says she "may have rubbed a hotel employee the wrong way" when she complained about the size of her room, which was so small that the bed touched the TV. She was sent to another room, and checked out without incident. "I then was besieged by hundreds of obscene phone calls at my home and office over the next month," says Chapman, who runs a marketing company in Chicago. The phone calls were traced back to the hotel, which, when confronted with the crime, offered her an apology and a free seven-night stay.
How to avoid it? A polite request made in person is preferable to a phone call, but short of being extra nice, it's hard to see something like this coming.
5. MAKE YOU PAY -- LITERALLY.
Hotel employees can wreak all kinds of havoc on your guest folio, adding late charges that don't show up on your bill until after you've checked out, or putting in little extras that you assumed were included in the price of your room. "It is not uncommon for rude guests to have to pay for services that others might not have to," says Webb, the ex-hotel employee. "This includes long-distance calls, the breakfast bar, drinks and food." Other tricks include manipulating your confirmed room rate or adding unexpected extras, like charges for Internet, the minibar or pay-per-view movies. Rarely are they so overt, though. Usually, it's something smaller that you discover a few days after you've left, like a minor late charge or breakfast.
How to avoid it? Be nice. Polite guests are far less likely to have "mistakes" like this happen.
In fact, being nice may be the single-best defense against vindictive hotel employees. It works for travelers like Robb Gordon, a mortgage banker from Sedona, Ariz.
"When we get a difficult hotel clerk, we try to empathize and cheer him or her up," he says. That includes tipping them generously. "We always get a decent room, and sometimes we are nicely upgraded to a suite, in which case we generally return and enhance the tip."
Failing that, a chat with the hotel's manager might help.
Then again, it might not.
(Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. You can read more travel tips on his blog, elliott.org or e-mail him at email@example.com).