For the most part, there are two different types of hotel bookings: refundable and nonrefundable.
Sometimes you find yourself in a situation where you were super set on your dates but something (aka life) comes up and all of a sudden you’re stuck with a nonrefundable hotel booking. But don’t worry — in many cases, you still have the opportunity to cancel and even get a refund on a nonrefundable stay.
Below, I will walk you through a few different circumstances where you can get a refund. I’ll also give you some actionable tips for avoiding nonrefundable issues in the future.
Why are some hotel rates non-refundable?
Hotels usually offer both refundable and nonrefundable rates. Refundable rates are typically more expensive because you have more flexibility and can cancel close to the check-in date. Typically, award stays (using points and free night certificates) function a lot like refundable rates.
The deadline for refundable rate cancellation varies — sometimes it is up to the time of check-in while other times you need to cancel a day or two prior to check in order to get the full refund. If you fail to cancel within the specified timeframe, you will likely be responsible for the first night’s rate but not additional nights.
Nonrefundable rates are usually cheaper because you are giving up flexibility for a lower rate. This benefits hotels because it allows them to get a better grasp on their inventory ahead of time.
Cancellation policies for nonrefundable rates can differ but sometimes you are not allowed any type of refund shortly after you make your booking. In addition, you often have to pre-pay for your stay at the time of booking or some other time before check-in.
One thing to note is that sometimes there actually is NOT a big price difference between refundable and nonrefundable rates.
I’m not sure exactly why this happens but I have seen it on a few occasions where there is a negligible difference between the two rates. Anytime that occurs, I would strongly suggest going with the refundable rate.
But I mentioned all of the above to say this: when you request for a nonrefundable rate to be refunded you are essentially asking the hotel to disregard the risk that you took in order to save a few bucks.
So that is often what you are up against.
Tip: Use the free app WalletFlo to help you travel the world for free by finding the best travel credit cards and promotions!
Situations where you can get a refund
Cancel within 24 hours
Some hotels have policies similar to airlines that allow you to get a full refund if you cancel within a specified time frame such as 24 hours or 48 hours. These should be listed in the terms and conditions when you are booking.
Even if you don’t see anything like this explicitly mentioned you could still inquire with the hotel and ask them if they would be agreeable to waiving the cancellation fee since you are canceling within a short period of time.
Just note that if you are making a last minute booking (such as the day before your stay) this window might not apply.
Unexpected death or serious illness
If you experience a death or serious illness within your family or close circle, you can explain this to the hotel and there is a good chance they will allow you to cancel without penalty.
In some instances, a hotel might want you to supply some type of supporting documentation, so it is best to have some type of evidence on standby to support yourself.
Another thing you can do is to proactively offer to provide supporting documentation. A lot of representatives will be uncomfortable with forcing someone to prove a death because it is not a very customer-friendly thing to do and they will likely just allow you to cancel.
If you will not be able to make your hotel stay because a storm came in and forced your flight to be canceled you might be able to get a full refund on that basis. This is especially true if the hotel is aware that you are a business traveler and potential repeat customer.
When the pandemic hit in 2020 hotels started to allow very flexible cancellation policies for the following months.
While a lot of hotels have gotten strict about nonrefundable rates since then they still may be willing to be flexible with you if you or a loved one were to come down with coronavirus.
If you are a loyalty member or you have previously stayed at the hotel, this is a great time to bring up those facts.
Notice I said “facts” because hotels can see your history with them so if you go off telling stories about how you have stayed there every other weekend but you’ve never even seen the inside of the lobby IRL, you’re not going to get very far.
Also, if you have elite status — especially top level elite status — you absolutely should try to leverage that as best you can.
Tip: One (super legit) pro tip that I have seen work on multiple occasions is asking for a one-time exception based on your elite status. You obviously don’t want to abuse that request but it can come in handy when you are in a bind.
Just be a little bit careful about avoiding the “do you know who I am” type of vibe when bringing up elite status. Try to focus the conversation on the loyalty you’ve had to the brand or property rather than “who you are” for your best success.
For example, say something like: “For someone like me who has stayed at this property a few times every year for the past few years and that has diamond status, is it possible to get a one time exception on the nonrefundable cancellation policy.”
And don’t say some thing like: “My name is X, I’m rich and a platinum member who could buy this entire hotel if I wanted. I demand this cancellation fee be removed now. Chop chop!”
Major event change
If you were planning on attending a big convention or event in the area and for some reason the event is canceled or you are not able to attend for personal reasons, you can also communicate this to the hotel and see what they can do.
A lot of people start to come up with these elaborate stories whenever they decide they have to cancel a nonrefundable hotel booking.
It’s great to be prepared and have somewhat of a script before you go making a request, but in some cases you can get your nonrefundable rate canceled without a fee just by calling the hotel and being extremely friendly.
The trick here is that you need to talk to someone who is capable and knowledgeable. Sometimes you’ll find yourself on the phone with someone that you may suspect doesn’t really know what they’re doing (like a new employee).
In that case, try to make a request to speak with a manager or head of sales as polite as possible.
Related: What Time Is Check-In for Hotels?
Call the hotel, not the 1-800 number
For most cancellations it’s much better to call the local phone number for the hotel you would be staying at rather than the 1-800 number. It’s often just easier to get a hold of someone and to get reconnected if something happens. Also, the process tends to move quicker when you go directly to the property, in my experience.
In some cases you may have access to a special phone line (based on your elite status) and it might be better to call that number but generally dealing with the local hotel staff is the way to go.
If you are not making any progress with the local hotel then it is time to call the national phone line if possible. (If you book your hotel through an online travel agency like Expedia, check out the tips below.)
Tip: If you are working with a really skilled travel agent, you might want to let your travel agent handle the cancellation since they could have more pull.
Book with the right credit card
The best way to avoid dealing with cancellation fees that will set you back financially is to book your hotel stays with a credit card that offers great trip insurance.
Trip cancellation is usually the perk you will be looking for and you can find some travel credit cards like the Chase Sapphire Reserve that will cover you up to pretty large amounts like $10,000!
With these cards, if you are denied a refund you simply file a claim and you can get reimbursed pretty quickly.
Perhaps the oldest trick in the book is to call the hotel and move your reservation to sometime in the future and then cancel it later.
For example, you might call the hotel and move your reservation to three months out and then cancel it a month later. This works at a lot of hotels even when hotel agents are aware of exactly what you’re doing. (In many cases, hotel agents just don’t want to deal with fighting with a customer so they let it go.)
However, some hotels may attach the same cancellation policy to your new reservation so you won’t be able to avoid the terms associated with your original booking.
To get around that you might think about changing your reservation dates AND the property.
This one is harder to pull off but you could ask them if they would be willing to change your booking to the same hotel brand in another city and on another date. (This might work best when calling the national hotline.)
Even if the same cancellation policy applies, you might be able to book a room that is significantly cheaper and that will allow you to save more money.
Dealing with OTA’s
Dealing with hotel cancellations and changes always gets a little bit more complicated when you introduce a third-party.
When you need to cancel your stay booked through an OTA such as Expedia, you have two choices.
The first is that you can contact the online travel agency and try to work directly through them. They might be able to honor your request but a lot of them are sticklers with the nonrefundable rates. The best you might be able to get is some type of hotel voucher for a future use.
Also, if you are trying to cancel based on something like a medical reason I’ve found OTAs to be more demanding when it comes to requiring something like a doctor’s note.
The other route that you can go to is to contact the hotel directly.
In some cases, if the hotel cancels for you they still may have to pay a commission to the online travel agency which is one reason why someone may direct you to the OTA. But in other cases, a hotel might be able to take care of the cancellation for you.
You may have to just make the judgment call of who you think will be easier to deal with which can differ based on the online travel agency you are using and the personnel you speak with at the hotel. I’ve certainly been in situations where there is endless back-and-forth between me, the hotel, and the OTA (and multiple 3-way calls).
One key thing to consider with OTA’s is that follow-up becomes very important. Why? Because a lot of these are giant companies and your case can get lost in the mix. Try to get a point of contact via email so that you can touch base with them every few days to see what’s going on.
Ask about a cleaning fee
If it is going to cost you $100 or more to cancel your hotel stay then you might want to ask them about just covering a “cleaning fee.” This cleaning fee is basically just a way for the hotels to feel like they are not taking a total loss with your cancellation and basically has nothing to do with cleaning.
This could potentially get you off the hook for only like $50. Not every hotel will go for it but if you offer this as an option they may be willing to bite.
Tip: You could also ask for alternative forms of refunds like award points, vouchers, etc.
Inactive credit card number
Another trick that can work at some properties is to make your booking with a cancelled or expired credit card.
I would definitely avoid doing this with a “fake” credit card because there could potentially be fraud concerns there. But if you were to reserve a hotel with a credit card that is no longer active, they may have no way of charging the cancellation fee.
This is slightly black hat so you should be aware that this could reflect poorly on you if you were to get “caught.” But people accidentally use expired credit cards all the time so it’s a pretty reasonable excuse.
Utilize social media
A lot of hotels and brands in general don’t like to see their brand disparaged in public. I would avoid going overboard and being super dramatic but there’s nothing wrong with resorting to social media to call attention to what you believe is a shortcoming in service.
This is also a great route to go when you are trying to get clarity on what is happening with processing your refund request.
There are platforms out there that allow you to essentially sell your nonrefundable hotel rooms. These include online companies like Spare Fare and Roomer Travel. I’ve even heard of people selling their nonrefundable room rates on Craigslist.
Changing your name on a hotel reservation is easier than changing your name on a plane ticket but it still can come with some concerns.
So if you think about doing something like this just be very clear about whether or not you have a credit card on file that someone could potentially run up a huge bill on.
Some hotels may allow you to submit a credit card authorization form which would be needed for someone else to spend on your credit card on file.
Canceling a nonrefundable hotel stay is certainly not the end of the world. There are quite a few different methods that you can try in order to avoid cancellation fees and a few situations where a refund is likely.
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Daniel Gillaspia is the Founder of UponArriving.com and creator of the credit card app, WalletFlo. He is a former attorney turned full-time credit card rewards/travel expert and has earned and redeemed millions of miles to travel the globe. Since 2014, his content has been featured in major publications such as National Geographic, Smithsonian Magazine, Forbes, CNBC, US News, and Business Insider. Find his full bio here.