Bad hotel room? How to ask for an upgrade or refund.

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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, NY, 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 a 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.

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, NerdWallet travel expert Sally French said. “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.

The hottest new hotel amenity? Sleep.

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.

If you can’t change hotels, or 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, NY, 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.

Hotels have gone to the robots

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. I upgraded them to the penthouse.

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 at the hotel late, and after checking in, the front desk clerk disappeared. She found a maintenance man, who told her that the clerk could not be contacted and that she could not switch rooms. She went to another hotel instead.

“But I didn’t leave until I refunded me every last cent,” she said.

Trying to work it out with the hotel is your best option, said French. 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.

A beginner’s guide to travel insurance

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 if 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 if 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.

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 were working on 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 their hotel-branded credit card — all things that can help, said French.

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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: just that I’d stayed in one of the mega chain’s hotels and thought this situation was “weird,” included those screenshots and tagged the hotel’s corporate account.

The account asked me to direct-message them the details and viola, I had my refund. I already applied it to an October trip to Maine.

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