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Misled About a Vacation?

Here are some tips on how to get money refunded if a resort or other hospitality company fails to deliver what it promised

By Joanne Cleaver

This can't be right, I told my husband as we pulled into the parking lot of a three-story condo building with fading paint.

A tiny RV with peeling paint. Next Avenue, bad accommodation, vacation rental nightmare
What is your recourse when a travel provider fails to deliver the experience you reserved?  |  Credit: Getty

I looked at the map provided to me just minutes before by the front desk staff at Horseshoe Bay Resort, the Texas destination that was to be a highlight of our post-Christmas rendezvous with our eldest daughter and her rambunctious family.

On our way in, we had driven past rows of townhouses within easy walking distance of the pool and other amenities that had attracted us to this purportedly ritzy destination in the hill country. When I'd made the reservation back in August, on the phone with a friendly staffer, I had explained that our group included four kids ages 3 to 9; four adults; and expectations for making the most of the pool and environs. A townhouse was ideal, she and I agreed.

Not at All what She Expected

But here we were, looking up at our unit, at the top of two flights of stairs. Our SUV was overloaded with suitcases, bags of books and boxes of toys we had dragged along to replicate our cherished holiday traditions 1,200 miles from home.

"I thought we were stuck with it."

We started hauling stuff up all the stairs. Inside, we discovered to our horror that the unit had a balcony with a very child-unfriendly rail overlooking the open water of the lake. This was not at all what we thought we reserved.

But the ice cream was melting, the grandkids piling in and dinner had to be made. I thought we were stuck with it.

What is your recourse when a travel provider fails to deliver the experience you reserved?

You're far from home, unfamiliar with the options, and fearful of being stranded. In the past, I've just put up with the disappointment of a substandard room or experience. But I'm getting better at making my case even when there's nothing to return.

Insisting on a Partial Refund

Here's how I won a 75% refund of our miserable stay at Horseshoe Bay, and what I will do even better in the future when travel vendors don't come through as promised.

The next day, even six hours at the echoing and luxurious spa didn't dissipate my anger at paying $500 a night for a shabby condo when we'd reserved a townhouse. I went to the front desk and asked for a 20% refund to offset the major inconvenience. I showed the assistant manager my reservation, which stated 'townhouse."

"You do have a townhouse," he said.

"It's . . . a third-story walkup condo," I said. "It is by definition not a townhouse."

"We call it a townhouse," he said.

Two days later, when I checked out, a different staffer used the same illogic to gaslight me, insisting that the condo was a townhouse, in the face of the physical evidence to the contrary.

Their response was front and center in the dispute I opened up with American Express — my first time challenging any charge. I provided AmEx with a .pdf of the original reservation and plenty of photos that showed the unit, the stairs and the treacherous balcony. Initially, AmEx suspended payment and I thought I'd won.

The Boomerang Bill

But three months later, the payment was quietly reinstated, though I'd never heard a word from either Horseshoe Bay or Amex.

I asked the Amex executive office to find out what more I could have done to prove my case.

I also contacted the resort one last time, writing directly to the owner and manager, giving them a chance to make it right. I cited hospitality fraud investigations recently completed by the Texas attorney general's office and informed the owner and manager that I had already forwarded my evidence of misrepresentation to the AG.

One consumer lawyer recommends looping in state authorities whose jurisdiction includes the offending company.

In doing so, I did what one consumer lawyer recommends — looping in state authorities whose jurisdiction includes the offending company. "Consider reporting the transaction to an applicable government body, if it's a type of service they cover in their mandate," says Harrison Jordan, managing lawyer of Substance Law, a firm in Toronto.

Other government options, says Jordan: take it up with a consumer protection agency or, "if you've been scammed," you can report it to the Federal Trade Commission in the U.S. or the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre in Canada.

A day later, without mentioning that they'd been involved in the Amex dispute resolution process, the resort manager offered me a 25% refund. With the Amex escalation in process, I didn't take it.

Dubious Paperwork Discovered

Good thing, too. A day later, an Amex staffer called to inform me that as it reviewed the case, Amex discovered that in its response to my dispute, Horseshoe Bay submitted a doctored version of my reservation. Where the original reservation indicated "townhouse," the resort had substituted "condo."

Caught red-handed falsifying documentation, the resort will now be experiencing its own inquiry from Amex, I was informed. "You couldn't have done anything more," the Amex representative told me.

But I hadn't realized that I could ask for copies of the vendor's response to my dispute. If I had, I might have picked up on the falsified "evidence" that the resort had sent Amex.

Amex and I agreed that a 75% refund was in order, and 12 hours later, my account was credited $1,300. Meanwhile, I finally shook lose a response from the resort.

The Resort Manager Repents

"I am sorry to hear that you were disappointed with the communication and choice of accommodation during your stay in December," Randy Zupanski, the Horseshoe Bay Resort manager, said via email.

"When looking at the detail and personally going through the booking steps," he added, "I can see how you might have felt misled. Please be assured that this is not intentional, nor has it come up previously."


As disappointing as Horseshoe Bay was, the grandkids at least enjoyed their $50-an-hour afternoon at the kids' club. It wasn't a complete loss.

But what's your recourse when it is?

What if It Is a Total Loss?

Last year, my husband and I were stood up by a tour operator for a full-day drive along the Great Ocean Road, which stretches west from Melbourne along the spectacular southern coast of Australia. We'd made the reservation through Viator, a Boston-based company that serves as a booking agent for hundreds of local companies.

We were at the rendezvous point bright and early but the tour bus never showed up. Half an hour after the scheduled departure time, I was frantically calling the central Viator customer service line.

"It's crucial to review any contractual agreements or terms of service that were accepted at the time of booking."

The customer service representative immediately refunded our $300. But, I protested, can we get rebooked on another tour? We'll never know: she hung up on me.

Fortunately, we were early in our trip down under and had time to arrange an ocean road tour on another day, working directly with a local tour provider, through the concierge of a hotel where we would be staying at that point.

Viator spokesperson Devika Narayan has since told me the firm is committed to "finding solutions when any issues arise during a trip," and support staffers "typically reach out to offer alternative dates and timeslots for the experience. If no options are available or acceptable, we of course fully refund the booking."

Read the Paperwork — and Keep It

In my experience, they got it half right. We got our money back, but were left on our own to figure out a Plan B.

From now on, I'll be making reservations directly with local operators, and confirming before we leave home, and again as soon as we arrive at the destination. Doing so smoothed the way for the remainder of our Australian trip and identified potentially disastrous glitches, such as a last-minute change in a rendezvous point.

Jamie Wright, founder of the Wright Law Firm in Los Angeles, says that it's essential to move fast and authoritatively.

"It's crucial to review any contractual agreements or terms of service that were accepted at the time of booking," she says. "These documents often delineate the procedures for lodging complaints and your entitlements, which may include refunds or alternative accommodations."

Documentation, screenshots, photos, receipts: your trip isn't over until you've had the experiences you've paid for and don't have to file any complaints. It's tedious, but the only way to fully unpack is to create a forensic trail along with the memories.

Joanne Cleaver
Joanne Cleaver is a freelance writer based in Charlotte, N.C. She covers women's issues, travel, entrepreneurship, financial planning and retirement readiness. She has authored seven nonfiction books, the most recent being The Career Lattice: Combat Brain Drain, Improve Company Culture, and Attract Top Talent. Read More
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