After Doris Weller checked out of the Hampton Inn Parsippany, she assumed that she'd settled her bill. But the New Jersey hotel had a final surprise: a mysterious US$250 ($365) charge to her credit card. A manager claimed that she'd damaged her bed, but offered no details.
"I asked him to send me a copy of the incident they wrote up," says Weller, a social worker from Wichita, Kansas. "He said they had a policy internally they could not provide that for me."
In recent weeks, I've seen an uptick in complaints about charges to credit cards for unspecified damages. Some readers report being billed for damaging TVs they didn't touch or for smoking in their rooms even though they are lifelong nonsmokers.
While hotels don't release internal figures on damage claims, some evidence suggests a trend toward hotels more aggressively pursuing guests accused of damaging their rooms. There are also precautions you can take to prevent a delayed or late charge to your credit card after you check out.
For Weller, it became a frustrating case of he said/she said. She claimed that she hadn't damaged the bed, but the hotel insisted that she had soiled a mattress. The hotel, which is independently owned and operated, wouldn't produce an incident report or evidence of cleaning. I contacted Hampton Inn at the corporate level for an answer. After it consulted with the hotel, it reversed the $250 fee "in the spirit of hospitality and to avoid further controversy," according to a spokeswoman.
"We are starting to see more hotels making efforts to hold guests accountable for damage," says John Welty, a practice leader for Suitelife, an insurance and risk program for upscale hotels and resort properties. "However, for the hotel, proving after the fact that the guest caused the damage can be difficult."
Before continuing, a little reality check: If you've damaged anything in your room or smoked in a nonsmoking room, let the hotel know right away. And, for goodness' sake, take responsibility for the items you damaged. A little honesty would go a long way toward eliminating the problem of false damage claims.
Industry experts say hotels typically absorb the costs related to basic nuisance claims, such as broken glassware or a broken lamp. These smaller types of claims can average between $7000 to $17,000 a year for a 120-room hotel. It's considered a cost of doing business.
But on some damages, hotels can't look the other way - for example, when a dog tears up the carpet in a room or a guest hangs a suit on a sprinkler head and sets it off. Such incidents can cost a typical hotel more than $350,000 year, and they result in late charges such as the one experienced by Weller.
Stephen Fofanoff, the innkeeper for Domaine Madeleine Bed and Breakfast in Port Angeles, Washington, says he routinely gives his customers the benefit of the doubt.
"We don't charge unless the damage is beyond normal wear and tear, or looks obviously avoidable, as a result of guests' activity generally in violation of our policies regarding smoking or children," he says.
(He says it isn't pets or kids that cause the most damage, but makeup. "It results in stained sheets, pillowcases and towels," he says. But Domaine Madeleine doesn't charge its guests for the new linens but absorbs the expense.)
No two damage claims are the same. But sophisticated travelers can usually anticipate the bogus ones. Take Nicholas Kinports, a marketing executive in New York, who recently checked into an independent hotel. "When I arrived in the room, it was obvious the previous guest was a smoker," he recalls. "This was a nonsmoking room, and I called the front desk right away to complain. Unfortunately, the hotel was totally booked, and no accommodation could be made."
Sure enough, three weeks after his stay, he noticed an extra US$400 ($580) tacked on to his hotel bill - presumably for a deep cleaning of his room. For him, the resolution was a credit card chargeback, or refund. The hotel couldn't substantiate its charge, and he won the dispute.
"I don't know what went on behind the scenes," he says. "But I'm glad I was reimbursed."
I spoke with numerous guests and industry experts about how to avoid frivolous damage claims. All agree that Kinports was right to notify the hotel about the previous damage. Given the increased attention being paid to damages, some people have also suggested taking a "before" and "after" photo of your room, the way you would take a picture of a rental car to document pre existing damage. That might help with some damages, but not a false smoking charge.
Robert Rauch, CEO of RAR Hospitality, a consulting company, says hotel guests should fight unfounded charges politely. But if that doesn't work, they should quickly ratchet up the pressure.
"If a guest is charged for something that they believe is incorrect, they should contact the general manager and get a clear explanation," he says. "If you're not satisfied with the answer, there are many ways to communicate your issue. One is to negotiate in good faith that you believe the claim is false. The other is to go to social media. One good tweet will get the owner's attention."
Rauch says reputable hotels don't consider damage claims a profit center. But that assertion speaks to a suspicion shared by hotel guests who are falsely accused. Is someone inventing these claims, hoping that guests won't check their bills after they check out? Probably not, because merchants with too many credit card disputes could lose the ability to receive payment by credit card.
It's more likely that hotels are simply paying closer attention to the way their guests treat their rooms. And when it comes to the benefit of the doubt, they're more likely to give it to themselves than to you.