Navigating Hotels' Changing Cancellation Policies

Hotel cancellation policies have been changing—here's what to know before you book that room.

Hotels are beginning to follow the example of airlines in the form of stricter cancellation policies, and today's travelers need to read the fine print to understand when they could be charged a penalty.

This winter, hotel brands Hilton and Marriott announced plans to charge guests who cancel on the day that they originally plan to arrive a fee of one-night’s-room rate. For both hotel brands, cancellations need to be made by 11:59 pm the day prior to check-in to avoid a penalty. Previously, many hotels allowed guests to cancel their reservation on the day of check-in, although the lodging industry generally has been moving away from the standard cut-off of 6 pm.

What makes it more challenging for travelers is that policies can differ widely from one hotel chain to another and can even differ among the hotel properties operating under the same brand, with some of the hotels having more lenient policies than others. For example, Hilton hotel properties that already have special policies regarding cancellations, such as 2- or 4-day policies, won’t change. Additionally, travelers may even find that some hotel brands offer special cancellation policies for top-level loyalty-program members.

To be smart, Michael Kerbelis, owner of Southern Travel Agency, said people need to read and understand the policy before booking to avoid surprises, and he said that one of the benefits of working with an agency is that agents may have access to discounted rooms and can do the research into the fees and rules that come with each room. But if you're booking your travel directly, it's ultimately up to you to determine what the cancellation and refund policies are. 

These new policies, which went into effect in January for Hilton and Marriott, are enforced by requiring guests to enter credit-card information when booking a room.

According to Patty Font, of Augusta Travel Agency in Augusta, Ga., it is now almost impossible to make hotel reservations without a credit card on file to guarantee the room. Today, she said, the only standard policy regarding cancellation fees is that the hotel will require a credit- or debit-card guarantee. 

“It used to be pretty standard for hotels to hold a reservation until 6 pm without any kind of guarantee," Font said. "Now the policy varies from hotel to hotel, depending on the date of travel and the city where the hotel is located."

Some travelers may find that their reservations can't be canceled at all.

In addition to standard rates that do allow cancellations, many hotel and online-travel booking websites have started offering a nonrefundable rate. These nonrefundable rates are usually priced lower, but guests are locked into the room the minute they book it.

Fortunately, as seen on the websites for both Marriott and Hilton, hotel companies are making it very clear to travelers what the cancellation policy is. On Marriott's site, a link labeled "about this rate" provides information about cancellation rules, and Hilton's site even has an option allowing site users to select "easy cancellation" to narrow search results.

However, when reserving a room through an online travel agency (OTA) booking site, policies maybe be different. Thus, it can be unclear when booking through such sites as to whether the traveler will be following the cancellation policiy of the hotel or the cancellation policy of the booking website—or some special cancellation policy unique to that online transaction. A free cancellation for the booking site could mean that the OTA won’t charge a fee; however, the hotel may still charge one.

Some OTAs don't allow cancellations, such as the "Hot Rate" hotel deals from Hotwire.com, where the business makes it clear that every booking is final, prepaid and cannot be cancelled. Again, reading the fine print is really the only safe method.

Hotel nonrefundable rates and cancellation policies

And if you do end up stuck with a hotel room and are unable to cancel or get your money back, don't give up yet. Websites like Roomer can connect travelers who are looking for rooms with people looking to get rid of their rooms.

But to avoid having to visit Roomer in the first place, make sure to double-check the policy before you click "confirm."

Maridane Hewes
About the author

Maridane serves as the associate travel editor for Where. Studying journalism and Italian at the University of Missis...