W Hollywood hotel won't let you in the pool? How to get what you paid for from hotels and airlines

Get the hotel or airline amenities you paid forDuring a recent stay at Starwood's W Hollywood hotel in Los Angeles, despite the fact I was paying $230 a night for my stay, I was denied access to the pool. It was listed among the amenities I was getting for my top dollar, but because the W makes money by contracting with a Vegas-style promoter that devotes the pool deck to hipsters from the outside world, I was stopped at the door.

I wrote in detail about the W Hollywood insult on our sister site devoted to smart travel, Gadling.com. That post captured a fair bit of media attention from the likes ofThe Economistand Consumerist.com.

I call this getting "ripped off." And there are ways you can protect yourself from it when other hotels and airlines try it.

At the W Hollywood's Web site, at the bottom of the roster of amenities (one of the boasts: it has "sprinklers"), you get this fine print: "Some of the services and facilities above may not be available on a 24-hour basis or without advance request. Fees on certain facilities/services may apply." If I had booked via the Internet, I would have seen that, even if I don't believe it excuses the hotel from denying use of a primary amenity to me. But I was never presented with that caveat. I booked through a travel agent.

Bob Sullivan, the man behind the scambusting Red Tape Chronicles of MSNBC.com, agrees, saying in a recent interview, "Any time you take money from someone and they're surprised, that's a ripoff. And I don't care if it's in tiny print or it's in big words of wherever it's disclosed. Disclosure is not enough in my book."

Sometimes your amenity simply isn't working. It happens all the time on airplanes. Many flyers choose their airline based on whether there will be seatback TVs or Wi-Fi access. Entire Web sites, such as SeatGuru, support the slavish pre-research that goes into selecting an airline seat based on whether it's close to a power outlet.

On a recent Virgin America flight of mine, the power outlets were dead for my row and for several others, thwarting plans to turn a cross-country flight into a working commute. When a neighbor alerted the flight attendant to the problem, she wasn't empowered with either the knowledge to fix it nor the ability to compensate for it.

"What should I do now that the outlet isn't working?" asked the frustrated passenger behind me.

"I would suggest not using the outlet for a while," was her useless prescription.

The big hotel and air suppliers may couch their new tricks in legalese, but the simple fact is that often, you don't get what you thought you were paying for.

What to do when it happens

It turns out that Virgin America's corporate policy is different from what that man experienced. First, the airline says, flight attendants should try to re-seat a passenger to a spot where the amenities work properly. If that's not possible (such as on a full flight), free stuff may be in the offing.

A representative for the airline elaborates: "We don't have a standard policy but depending upon the situation (as it is rare that something would occur when we are not able to reseat) [but] what we provide could range from a free drink to a credit file." If you can't secure a remedy while you're on board, you can wait until after your flight ,as long as you can provide a seat number and a flight number.

In other words, if your promised airline amenities aren't functioning when they should be, you should politely decline to accept a "maybe they will later" for an answer. Most airlines would rather grant you a little gift to placate you than to lose your faith.

JetBlue, for its part, does have an explicit policy. Here it is, from its voluntarily posted Customer Bill of Rights: "JetBlue offers 36 channels of DIRECTV service on its flights in the Continental U.S. If our LiveTV system is inoperable on flights in the Continental U.S, customers are entitled to a $15 credit good for future travel on JetBlue. If the entire aircraft is inoperable, the $15 credit is issued automatically. If random seats are inoperable, customers are directed to contact Speak Up with their confirmation number. In both cases customers receive notification via e-mail."

In an industry in which extra fees are escalating, tracking what you're getting for your money is becoming more complicated.

Hotels: The front desk is the front line

Many hotels now deign to pad their income, and obscure the true cost of their room rates, with mandatory "resort fees" of $10 to $25 a day, which means the room price you're quoted ends up being nowhere near what you actually end paying. Those fees usually claim to entitle you to perks such as use of the fitness center or the pool.

Let's say your hotel's pool is closed for refurbishment -- or you're told you're not cool enough to use it. What is the policy of the major hotels if that happens?

I contacted five of the most prominent hotel chains (Starwood, Hyatt, Marriott, Hilton, International Hotels Group), and unlike the airlines we contacted, not one of them would go on record for WalletPop with a policy regarding what compensation a guest should expect if they don't get everything they paid for. Generally, though, hotel managers will tell you that each property has discretion over what it charges.

That, of course, leaves only one course for the slighted consumer: complaint. Unfortunately in this time of ever-increasing fees, hidden charges, and powerless consumers, whining is the only method with much power.

Some hotels will automatically bill you for a morning newspaper even if it isn't delivered or it is swiped by another guest from your door. If you don't want a paper to begin with, many hotels force you to decline it in writing and leave the notice at the front desk.

To find out if there are any such amendments to your room rate, you now have to comb your sign-in sheet carefully. You even have to scrutinize your key card case, which some hotels (like the W, again) use to slip even more fee disclosures by you.

In any case, the remedy is always the same: Once you've checked in, you must contact the front desk to request a credit. That can be a chore during hours when other people are checking in or out, and it can make you look a little cheap.

In this new age of screw-the-consumer hospitality, I feel most sorry for the front desk staff. They're on the front lines. They have to enforce the shady extra-charge policies imposed by their greedy corporate masters, and they're the ones who have to defend them when their hotel fails to deliver on its promises.

Besides clearing all fee reductions with the front desk, here are a few more tips:
  • Never pay with debit card. Use a credit card, which allows you to dispute charges.
  • Take the time to call your hotel upon booking to ask it about all extra charges and if anything will be unavailable because of renovations or other changes. Get it to send you an e-mail listing them, so that you have it in writing. Unfortunately, though, you won't learn about charges you don't suspect to begin with.
  • Always get the name of the desk clerk who deals with you or waives any fees.
  • Third-party websites (like Kayak, Expedia, TripAdvisor, etc.) may be more forthcoming about the availability of amenities than the websites run by the hotels themselves.
  • It may grate you to bestow loyalty on a hotel that nickels and dimes you, but frequent-guest programs often grant more latitude in reducing ridiculous fees.
Update: The W Hollywood, mortified by national exposure of its elitist policy, wrote me to say it has now revised its rules. Go, consumer power! Read all about it at our sister site about travel, Gadling.com.

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