On July Fourth weekend, I hopscotched across central and Upstate New York on a road trip from New Jersey to Niagara Falls. After an overnight in Binghamton, N.Y., I moved on to Rochester, where I went to 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 at the Holiday Inn I came back to was less than desirable. The air conditioning wasn’t cooling properly. The closet door was off its hinges. When I cut my finger on a sharp piece of metal protruding from 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 pieces of metal in the shower — or bugs or noise or unsafe hotel room conditions — in every situation.
Ask for a fix
Hotels are slammed by the same staffing shortages as everywhere else, so a less-than-tidy bathroom or a messy breakfast area may not be a sign that a hotel is on its last legs.
Start with the front desk, said NerdWallet travel expert Sally French. “You don’t need to tweet at the main corporate Twitter account that their hotels are dirty, because the person managing corporate Twitter can’t do anything about it,” French said.
Always be polite, “because the person at the front desk is a human, too,” she said. “Have some level of understanding of the situation you’re in and how much power they have to fix it.” That goes with managing expectations, too. Thin towels in a $2,000-per-night hotel room may be something to complain about, but for a $50-a-night room? Not so much.
French also recommended documenting the problem by taking pictures. If you’re calling from your cellphone, you’ll also have a log of how many calls you made and when. That way, if the issue isn’t fixed, you can escalate to hotel management or, if it’s part of a hotel chain, the chain’s customer service, and show that you tried to resolve the issue directly.
Ask for something back
If you can’t change hotels, or if you’re annoyed but don’t think it warrants moving to another hotel, you can also ask for something that will make up for the inconvenience. For example, on a 2019 cross-country road trip, I stopped at a hotel with mandatory valet parking, but none of the valets working then could drive stick, so I had to park the car myself. In exchange, the hotel waived the $50-per-night parking fee.
When Sonja Sherwood and her husband went on a trip to New Paltz, N.Y., for what was both their anniversary and the first night away from their son since he was born, a getaway and a good night’s sleep were both a priority. They had a beautiful day on a lake followed by watching a meteor shower, “but it’s an old hotel, and there was water hammer in the pipes,” she said, describing it as a constant “clunk, clunk, clunk.” Not great for sleep.
She asked the front-desk clerk if they could switch rooms and told him their tale of woe, that “we were parents getting away for the first time, and a full night’s sleep was our anniversary gift to each other,” she said. He upgraded them to the penthouse.
Get a refund
If a situation is untenable or unsafe and staying is not an option, you can ask for a refund. Sometimes firmness is required. On a trip to Stockholm, Kayt Sukel, who has been to six continents and is no stranger to bumps along the travel road, got a hotel room with a door that wouldn’t shut, let alone lock. She and her son had arrived to the hotel late, and after checking in, the front-desk clerk disappeared. She found a maintenance man, who told her that the clerk couldn’t be contacted and that she couldn’t switch rooms. She went to another hotel instead.
“But I did not leave until he refunded me every last cent,” 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 site, a refund is not impossible to get, but it can be harder, because the third party needs to get the money back from the hotel first before it can refund you.
You can try to dispute the charge with your credit card, but that process can also take time, because the card issuer has to investigate and may not decide in your favor, French said. Instead, see whether your card already includes travel insurance coverage. A lost or damaged luggage policy, for example, may extend beyond airline problems and also apply to a hotel breaking your bag when it was left in the checked luggage room. And, of course, if you purchased travel insurance, see whether the condition of your room is covered; this usually applies if you have “cancel for any reason” coverage. This type of insurance would allow you to cancel, even mid-trip, and get reimbursed for “a significant percentage,” which is why taking pictures is also important, French said.
Complain on social media
As for my Rochester hotel room: I did get a refund, eventually.
I was supposed to stay in the hotel for two nights, but I checked out after one and moved on to the next stop on my road trip a day early. Given the condition of the rest of the hotel — broken elevator and smashed wine bottle in the stairwell that hadn’t been cleaned up — I didn’t think that getting another room would be any better, nor that this was something the people working at the front desk could control.
Instead, I emailed management directly with photos. I also pointed out that I am a member of that hotel chain’s rewards program and that I booked the room with its hotel-branded credit card — all things that can help, French said.
Within hours, I was promised a refund. 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 step in. Their response was that the hotel manager said that I was lying and that they had never promised me a thing.
So I took French’s advice and my screenshots from emails promising me a refund to social media. I tweeted about the situation, and despite being angry, frustrated and accused of lying by the hotel manager, I did so without all-caps yelling, cries of malfeasance or even mentioning the name or location of the hotel, instead saying I’d stayed in one of the mega-chain’s hotels and thought this situation was “weird,” and I included those screenshots and tagged the hotel’s corporate account.
I was asked to direct-message the details to the account, and voilà, I had my refund. I already applied it to an October trip to Maine.
More travel tips
Planning: Your guide to traveling again, in 5 steps | How to move to Europe | Less busy national park alternatives |Protect your plans from covid chaos | Save on wedding travel | How to cook at a vacation rental | How to travel with kids under 5
Road trips: How to find a rental car | Snacks | National park tips | Rental car disasters | Try Kevin Costner’s road trip app | Trying a fancy bus from NY to DC | How to save on road trips as gas prices soar | What it’s like to rent from Turo
Flying: What to do about lost luggage | Getting through to airline customer service | How to get a refund | Extend your flight voucher | Find a good neck pillow | How to deal with chaotic airports | Cut the line at the airport | Get your kid a frequent flier account | Plane workouts | Why you should pick your seat | Can you fly with edibles? | When an airline bumps you | Your canceled flight emergency kit