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Hotels and Other Accommodations
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When you travel, you have the choice of many different types of accommodations: hotels, motels, inns, bed and breakfasts, rental houses and other lodging. With some minor variations, the laws governing most types of accommodations are similar. To simplify matters, we use the term hotel in this section to cover all types of accommodations.
Must a hotel provide me with a room, assuming there's a vacancy?
Generally, yes. The most basic legal principal concerning hotels is the duty to receive. Created hundreds of years ago under the common law of England, the duty to receive required hotel keepers to accept and take care of any traveler who presented himself as a paying customer, as long as the inn had room. Although this basic duty to receive has been modified somewhat by state laws, it is still the basis for many of the fundamental obligations that a hotel has to its guests.
A hotel can say no only if it reasonably believes that you will:
If you arrive drunk and disorderly, threaten another guest or appear to want to use the room for prostitution, you'll probably be turned away.
- not pay for your room
- injure or annoy other guests, or
- physically damage or otherwise harm the hotel (including giving it a bad reputation).
Must a hotel honor my prepaid or guaranteed reservation?
A prepaid or guaranteed reservation is one where you give the hotel a credit or debit card number and the hotel promises to have a room for you no matter when you show up, even if it's midnight or 3:00 a.m. If you have a guaranteed reservation and the hotel does not hold a room for you, the hotel has breached a contract and must do everything it can to find you a room--even if that means sending you to another hotel. If you guaranteed your reservation with a credit or debit card, the hotel may be required under the terms of its agreement with the card issuer to pay for your first night's stay at an alternate hotel, to provide free transportation to the alternate hotel as well as a three minute phone call to let your family or office know where you'll be staying, and to forward all incoming calls to your new hotel. Be sure to request these services. If the alternate lodging is more expensive, the hotel should pay the difference.
Is a guaranteed reservation the same as a confirmed reservation?
If you have not paid for the reservation in advance or guaranteed it, but have received a confirmed reservation from the hotel, the hotel must keep a room for you unless you haven't met the conditions of the reservation. For example, it is common for a hotel to say "we will hold the room for you until 6:00 p.m." or "we will hold the room for you if we receive a written confirmation and deposit" by a certain date. If you do not fulfill these obligations, then the hotel does not have to hold the room for you. If you do meet your obligations and the hotel doesn't have a room for you, it must do its best to find you comparable lodging.
Do I have the right to a particular hotel room?
Generally, no. A hotel manager can put you anywhere or move you from one room to another, as long as it is not done in a discriminatory way. The only exception is if you've reserved a certain room, like the honeymoon suite for your honeymoon.
If it's crucial for you to have a particular room, make sure the hotel management knows in advance and that you receive written confirmation for your reservation of that particular room. If the room you reserved is occupied by other guests, the management may, but is not obligated to, move those guests to another room. (A hotel can satisfy its obligation to you simply by providing a room comparable to the one you reserved.) If the room is uninhabitable (say, a water pipe breaks), then the hotel is excused from providing that particular room.
Do I have a right to privacy in my hotel room?
If you are using your room in a normal way, not engaging in illegal acts or disturbing other guests, then you have a limited right of privacy in your room. But if the hotel management believes that you are carrying out illegal activities (such as dealing drugs), it is entitled to enter and search your room, even without your permission. The hotel management cannot, however, authorize the police to search your room without your permission or a search warrant.
The hotel management also has the right to enter your room to clean or perform needed maintenance, or if necessary, to stop you from disturbing other guests (for example, if you are playing the television very loudly) or destroying hotel property.
It is generally considered a violation of your privacy if the hotel tells an outside person the number of your room. The hotel can tell an inquirer whether you are a guest at the hotel and connect any caller to your room. If you wish to maintain complete privacy, you must make it clear to the management that you are not to be contacted by anyone and that no one is to be told whether or not you are staying at the hotel.
Why do hotel room rates vary so much?
There is no set formula for determining what amount a hotel can charge, although rates must be reasonable. Many states require hotels to post the maximum charge for a room in a conspicuous place in each room (usually on the back of the door). Although the hotel may not charge more than this maximum rate (often referred to as the rack rate), it certainly may rent the room for less.
Always check your hotel bill to see whether it matches the rate you were quoted when you reserved the room. Frequently, additional charges will be tacked on. Some, such as visitor fees or bed taxes may be mandated by local or state law and are probably legitimate.
Other fees, such as service charges or telephone charges, may not be legitimate. A hotel cannot legally charge you more than the rate it quoted to you when you made your reservation, unless you approve the charges in advance. Many states have laws requiring that all additional charges be posted or approved in writing by guests.
Ask About Hotel Discount Rates
When you reserve a hotel room, you may be able to get a reduced price simply by asking about discounts available to the following people:
- corporate employees--many hotels have negotiated rates with large corporations that are 10%-30% lower than their standard rates and these rates are generally available to anyone who asks for them (although an occasional desk clerk will ask for a business card or other ID)
- families with children
- AAA members
- members of certain professional associations (like the American Medical Association or American Bar Association)
- guests paying with certain credit cards, or
- members of frequent flyer or frequent guest programs.
I paid a lot for a room that fell way short of my expectations. Do I have any recourse in a situation like this?
Sometimes you may find yourself in a hotel room that looks nothing like the one described to you or pictured in an advertisement or brochure. If the advertisement or description was intentionally deceptive, the hotel may be guilty of fraud. The law generally allows a limited amount of exaggeration or puffing in advertisements, but it does not allow intentional deception. When you find yourself in such a situation, your best bet is to talk to the manager immediately--he may be able to reduce your room charge or move you to a better room. If the problem is with the entire hotel, however (for example, it's in a very dangerous neighborhood) you're better off requesting a refund and finding other accommodations.
If your hotel room is unclean or unsanitary, report it to the manager and the housekeeping department immediately. If they are unable to clean your room to your satisfaction, request a new room or a refund. Should you end up in a serious dispute over the cleanliness of a room, the health and safety codes for the city or state where the hotel is located may provide the best support for your argument. Report any serious violation to local health authorities, not only to bolster your claims, but as a service to future guests. Take photographs of the offending conditions if you can.
I fell and hurt myself on a hotel's premises. Do I have any recourse against the hotel?
A hotel may be liable if you slip or trip and fall on the hotel premises--for example, on spilled food or drink in a hotel bar or restaurant, snow and ice that has not been cleared from a walkway, or on moist tile floors or other slick surfaces. You might also be hurt because of a design or building flaw (such as steps that are too steep) or the hotel's failing to light an area properly.
Does a hotel have any special obligation to protect guests around the swimming pool?
Because swimming pools create a potentially dangerous situation, hotels must be especially vigilant in designing, maintaining and controlling access to them. Disclaimers such as "swim at your own risk" are unlikely to protect a hotel from liability if it didn't use sufficient care to protect its guests, such as failing to installing a fence around a pool. This is true even if you are drunk. Most courts require hotels to anticipate that children, inebriated guests and others might find their ways into the pool if safeguards don't keep them out.
Is the hotel responsible if I am the victim of a crime at or near the hotel?
A hotel cannot be held liable for crimes committed on or near the hotel unless it should have anticipated the crime (for example, the hotel is in a very high crime area) and could have prevented it, either by providing sufficient warnings or taking better security measures. In such situations, the hotel's general duty to warn you about dangerous conditions may extend to a duty to warn about crime in or around the hotel. Furthermore, the hotel's actions--such as failure to install proper locks on windows and doors, provide adequate lighting in parking areas or take adequate measures to ensure that passkeys are not used by criminals--may make the hotel at least partially liable.
Is the hotel responsible if my belongings are stolen?
Traditionally, hotels were liable for virtually all loss or theft of a guest's property. Today, however, most states limit a hotel's liability if it takes certain steps to protect your belongings. For cash, jewelry and other valuables, a hotel is required to provide a safe. Most states require the hotel to tell you that the safe is available, that the hotel has limited liability for valuables left in the safe and that the hotel may have no liability if you do not place valuables in the safe.
The limitation of liability also includes a limitation for clothing and other personal goods you bring to the hotel. While you are not required to check expensive suits or mink stoles at the front desk as valuables, clothing and expensive luggage often exceed the amount of the hotel's maximum liability.
Generally, these limited liability laws were passed to protect hotels from forces beyond their control, such as fire or theft. If the hotel fails to use reasonable care to protect your valuables (for example, it leaves the safe unlocked), it will probably be liable for the full value of your loss.
Is the hotel liable if my car is damaged, broken into or stolen?
Traditionally, hotels were strictly liable for protecting your means of transportation. This meant caring for your horses, saddles, tack and the rest. These days, hotels are required to use reasonable care to protect your car. Many state laws set a monetary limit for loss or damage to a vehicle or its contents. But even in these states, negligence by the hotel--including the valet--could make the hotel liable for damage it should have foreseen.
Whether the contents of a car parked at a hotel are the hotel's responsibility is not clear. They do not fall into the traditional categories of goods within the hotel or transportation. The hotel is most likely to be liable when you pay for parking, a valet or other employee takes your car, retains the keys and is informed of the value of the contents of the car.
What if I don't check out when I say I will?
In most states, renting a hotel room gives you what is called a revocable license to use the room. This right is much more limited than the rights a tenant has when renting an apartment. Formal eviction proceedings don't have to be brought if you overstay your welcome. The hotel can simply change the lock (easy to do today because hotels often use preprogrammed entry cards, not keys) and pack up your items.
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