If you are going to book a swanky hotel in Asia through a popular booking website, perhaps be extra careful about reserving a room on New Year's Eve.
My wife and I are off to India over the Christmas and New Year period. We spent ten days in Jaipur last year, had a wonderful time and can't wait to return.
However, this year we are doing something of a road trip. After landing in Jaipur, we plan to travel to Jodhpur (The Blue City) for four nights, then on to Bikaner for a three-night stay, before finishing back where we started in the capital of the Rajasthan state.
Although Bikaner is a decent-sized city, it's not blessed with the greatest selection of '5-star' accommodation and frankly, we were looking to splash out and treat ourselves to somewhere a bit special. We eventually settled for a beautiful-looking heritage property with a central location for about 9,000 rupees per night + taxes. About $130 US per night for a double room including breakfast.
Reviewers on popular travel sites like Trip Advisor couldn't heap enough praise on the joint. "You'll love it there!" seemed to be the unanimous verdict.
The original reservation
We booked the hotel room via Booking dot com back in mid-August and straight away received the usual e-mail informing us that our room had been reserved for three nights (30th, 31st December and 1st January) Furthermore, we could cancel our booking at any time before the 30th November, after which the hotel would deduct, from the credit card, a non-refundable part payment. We had no problems with that; that's the way things are done.
Fast forward to last weekend and on the 30th November, my wife received an SMS from her bank to say the hotel in Bikaner had authorized the full payment on the credit card (including the standard Indian hotel taxes). Again, I had no real problems with that. It just meant that we had now paid in full and no longer qualified for any sort of 'free cancellation'.
You must be joking!
But on the 1st December (the day after the full payment was made) we received the following e-mail from the hotel.
Greeting, Thank you for choosing *************** as your preferred hotel of choice during your upcoming visit to Bikaner. Pleased to inform you that we are organising a Gala Dinner on 31st Dec’19 @ INR 9000 + taxes per couple (in occasion of New Year celebration) which is mandatory for all the guests staying with us. We request you to please acknowledge the same & advise us your arrival time as we are preparing the table allocation list.
I read the e-mail and steam started to spout from my ears.
Why on earth couldn't the hotel have informed us that there would be a mandatory extra charge for a New Year's Eve gala when we first inquired about a room? (they knew that New Year's Eve was one of our preferred dates). Secondly, does that not strike you as a seriously underhanded and rather unethical business practice to inform us less than 24 hours after the full payment was made.
The timing was everything! I suspect there was nothing coincidental about this and I think it's that that got me most worked up.
Gala dinners are standard
I used to implore my business writing students to wait for an hour or so if they ever felt the need to write an angry response to an e-mail. 'Give yourself a period of time to calm down and the situation might appear different' I would tell them. However, I don't always practice what I preach and I fired off an angry e-mail and let the hotel know that I was far from happy with the situation.
Before I go any further, I'm fully aware that the more upmarket hotels across Asia (probably even worldwide) like to plan these 'gala dinners' on New Year's Eve. As a friend said on social media, 'it's a golden opportunity for hotels to take some extra cash off their paying guests'.
I remember years ago, on one of their many trips to Thailand, my mum and dad were staying at a hotel in Chiang Mai and had to pay extra for a mandatory New Year's Eve function. BUT they were informed of the situation right from the time of booking. There were no hidden surprises. As my dad said 'I didn't really want to go but I knew well in advance that I needed to pack a smart pair of trousers'. I think that's all totally acceptable. If you don't want to go to the ball, you have the choice there and then not to play by the hotel's rules and take your business elsewhere.
With the hotel in India, we didn't get that option.
Neither my wife nor I are what you would call 'night owls'. 'Early to bed and early to rise' is our travel mantra - in order to squeeze maximum mileage out of the daytime hours. We have zero interest in hobnobbing with fellow guests at some New Year's Eve bash. Frankly, I can't even remember the last time I was still awake at midnight. It's just not our cup of Earl Grey. Not only that but 9,000 rupees (plus tax) is not an insignificant amount of dough to hand over and be forced to attend something we don't want to.
I decided to take things further and hoped Booking dot com would lend a sympathetic ear. Like all big companies who only want to talk to complainants as a last resort, if you are willing to battle your way through the endless and frustrating FAQs, you will eventually stumble upon a customer hotline number. I gave Booking dot com a call and after spending the obligatory eternity on hold, spoke to an exceptionally nice young man who I assume was speaking from a call centre in Amsterdam (where I believe the head office is located)
A knight in shining
It didn't take him long at all to get an angle on the story.
"None of our business partners (hotels) have the right to do this - to hit guests with extra charges that are not made clear at the time of booking", he said. He also agreed that the timing of the hotel's e-mail was 'wholly unacceptable'.
He offered to call the hotel in India on our behalf to sort things out. He then gave me the option to stay on the line while he did this or he could e-mail me the end result. I told him that an e-mail would be fine and thanked him for his help.
True to his word, he e-mailed me a short time later to say he had spoken to the hotel management ( I guess when Booking dot com say jump, the hotel asks 'how high?) and told them under no circumstances should a guest be forced to pay to attend a hotel function. Furthermore, if the hotel does levy this extra charge, the guest will be refunded in full by Booking dot com.
So all's well that ends well. It's just a shame that a relationship between a guest and hotel staff has already endured such a prickly start.