Using debit cards at a hotel can make for an unpleasant stay

I've known for a while that debit cards and hotels don't really mix, but now I've learned it the hard way.

Last weekend, I stayed at an Embassy Suites in Florida, attending a magazine writers' conference. I had a wonderful, spacious room with all of the amenities, and the service was great, but like many hotels, Embassy Suites immediately put a "hold" on the money for the two nights I was staying. I had deposited a check that day at my bank, but because they were holding most of my funds until the next morning, I went through the late afternoon and evening, oblivious to the fact that I had almost nothing in my bank account -- and yet, plenty of unavailable money.

I discovered what had happened that evening at a restaurant when my debit card was declined. But that's another story entirely, although happily not one that ended with me washing dishes.
Fast forward a few more days. I have money in my bank account, and I'm back at my home office in Ohio, and I'm looking at my bank account. My hotel hasn't just charged me for two nights I stayed, but three.

Come Wednesday morning, the two nights that I stayed at the hotel almost a week ago are long paid for, but I still have a "hold" on a third night. I called the hotel, and they're researching it, and I'm sure it'll get resolved, but in the meantime, I have well over $100 in my bank account that's like a phantom dollar figure. It's there in my account, but it's not available, and I'm left wondering if I'll get it back soon, or if it'll wind up going to the hotel, and I'll have to then negotiate, hope or beg for a refund. I'm sure it's some "hold" related to security, but given that it's several days after I've paid for the hotel, it just seems like either a lousy policy or more likely, technology gone amok.

In any case, my guess is that this wouldn't have happened if I had used a credit card instead of a debit card. The more I read up on hotels and debit cards, they really don't mix. So, in the interest of having others avoid my frustrations, here are my three suggestions if you're thinking of paying for a hotel with a credit card.

1) If you have a credit card that isn't near its maxed out point, use that. Just use it. It'll be easier altogether. And look at it this way, if you have a dispute, it's easier to get a refund when you're dealing with a credit card versus cash, checks or a debit card.

2) If you don't have a credit card, or you do but it's near the maximum allowed balance, call the hotel and ask its policy revolving around debit cards. The simple fact -- based on the hotels that I've stayed at in the last couple years -- is that many desk clerks won't think to mention their policy and whether they hold funds immediately upon check-in, or even worse, hold extra nights as a security deposit. You can also offer a credit card at the check-in but let them know that you want to pay with a debit card upon check-out.

3) Ask if you can just pay cash upfront at check-in. Some hotels actually prefer you don't, but doing so would help you avoid a lot of problems. I can attest to that.

Geoff Williams is a freelance journalist and the author of C.C. Pyle's Amazing Foot Race: The True Story of the 1928 Coast-to-Coast Run Across America (Rodale).
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