Bombed out in the Big Easy

by Christopher Elliott on May 23, 2003

Q: I planned a trip to New Orleans for Christmas last year. For the first three nights I wanted to stay at the Hotel Provincial in the French Quarter. For the last three nights, and over Christmas day, I wanted to stay at a really nice place. I had my heart set on the International House.

Unfortunately, when I contacted the hotel on the Internet, it looked as though it no longer had any suites available. So I called. I spoke with a reservation agent named Julian, who said the suites were sold out. However, he told me he did have several suites available at the newly completed Loft 523, the International House’s sister property. He assured me we would love it. It was pricey, but Julian was so nice and helpful. I figured I was set.

Well, the first hotel, the Provincial, was terrific. But by the end of the third day, we were looking forward to moving to a different part of town, and the Loft was supposed to be located in the Warehouse district, just one block from the International House. So, with considerable excitement, we headed to the pricey, and therefore supposedly even nicer hotel.

What a shock! The place was, well, prison-like. They called it “modern.” And it was so modern in fact that the “suite” was one big room. There were 12-foot ceilings, it’s true, but there was nothing on the white walls, there was no carpet or rug on the cement floor, and the furniture consisted of a bed, a large TV, a straight-back chair with a small table, and a sort of couch – also straight-backed, with vinyl cushions. The furniture was modern to the point of being monastic.

We figured that perhaps the view would be enough to keep us there. We opened the floor to ceiling curtains and were startled by view of what looked to be a bombed-out building (really, I’m not kidding). In short, it was not a place anyone in their right mind would want to hang around in – especially not over Christmas. We were looking for something comfortable and cheerful. This room was the opposite.

So I called the Provincial and asked if we could come back. They said we could. I spoke at length to the woman at the front desk of Loft 523 about what we would be charged since there was no way we would stay. She apologized, but said it was their policy to charge one night for a last-minute cancellation. I was angry since I felt I had been terribly mislead, but I finally agreed.

Well, I just got my bill, and they charged me for all three nights at $305.97 per night. What can I do?

-- Kimberly Farley

A: Talk about being taken in. I can’t believe Julian would send you to a property like Loft 523, which is a world away from the International House, without first finding out if you were into lofts. Clearly, he was just trying to make a sale.

When you discovered Loft 523 wasn’t to your liking, the hotel should have not only left your credit card alone, it should have also made sure that you found accommodations that were satisfactory (either at the International House or elsewhere in town).

Charging your credit card was callous and inappropriate, given your circumstances. Merry Christmas, indeed. And there’s no excuse for billing you three nights that you didn’t spend at the property. I don’t blame you for being angry.

I’ve had a similar experience. A few years ago, I found what looked like a charming bed and breakfast on Maryland’s Eastern Shore on the Internet. I booked a weekend. But when we arrived, I realized that the Web site had omitted a few important details. The inn was located in a dangerous-looking neighborhood and was run-down. I called the proprietor before checking in and cancelled. My penalty for not doing my homework: an $85 charge with nothing to show for it.

What should I have done? Asked around, for starters. Found a more reliable source of information than the hotel’s promotional Web site. In the same way, I think you could have avoided this problem by being skeptical of Julian’s enthusiastic recommendation. Of course he’s going to refer you to the International House’s sister property. He works there. But don’t confuse his advice for that of a travel agent or a word-of-mouth recommendation from a friend.

You should have spoken with the manager on duty before you agreed to be charged for one night’s stay. The hotel might have waived that charge if it had known that you relied on a staff member to make the initial booking. It’s always a good idea to let someone in management know when you leave a hotel unhappy rather than waiting until you’re home to write a letter. Once you’re out the door, your odds of resolving a grievance are far worse.

The easiest way to get the credit-card charges reversed is to contact the property and explain the error. If it refuses, then you could dispute the charges on your credit card.

As it turned out, I contacted Amy Reimer, the hotel’s general manager. She apologized for the misunderstanding, refunded the entire charge, including your one-night “penalty,” and invited you back to New Orleans – to the International House this time – for a free two-night visit. To her credit, Reimer also acknowledged that loft-style living isn’t for everyone. “While some travelers prefer that ‘type’ of living and vacationing,” she told me, “others do not.”

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