What to do With Nonrefundable Hotel Reservations You Can’t Use

a bed in a room
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You proudly snagged a super low-priced hotel room for your upcoming overseas trip, but the following week found out you’re pregnant and the trip coincides with the due date. Your husband booked a romantic weekend getaway for the two of you, but when he surprised you with the news you were dismayed because your sister told you earlier that day that she’s getting married that weekend.

Life doesn’t always go according to plan, and even when you carefully prepare you can feel like you’re suddenly the last man standing in a game of musical chairs. Here’s what nonrefundable hotel room reservations are about, and what to do with them when you can’t use them.


Why do hotels sell rooms as nonrefundable?

Rooms that hotels and online travel agencies sell as nonrefundable are often designed that way to protect the hotel’s revenue. If all hotels and online travel agencies allowed free cancellation then people would be canceling constantly and theoretically they’d have to scramble to find someone to put in your room to cover the cost for what they thought was a confirmed deal. To make sure some rooms are filled, rates are often dropped and sold as nonrefundable.

Someday, I think hotels will offer credit towards a future reservation or have a 24-hour refundable window on non-refundable reservations. For now though, since they have both fully refundable and non-refundable rates they can simply state that the purchaser could have chosen the higher-priced rate that was refundable.

Many large hotel chains allow cancellation up until the day prior to check-in, to avoid running into the same scenario as above where they are scrambling to find someone to fill your room at the last minute. They don’t want to lose out in the musical chairs game, either. That doesn’t help you if you’re holding a confirmed hotel room that clearly says it is nonrefundable, and you can’t use it.

Here’s what to do

If you booked directly with the hotel over the phone or via their own website, call the property directly as soon as you realize you won’t be able to keep the reservation. Do not call the hotel directly if you booked with an OTA (online travel agency) like Priceline, Hotwire, Orbitz, etc. They’ll simply refer you back to the company you made the reservation with, which is the OTA.

Presuming you booked directly with the hotel, ask to speak with the front desk. If you ask for Accounting, you’ll probably get a voicemail and they’ll be less accommodating than the Front Desk. Keep in mind that you have made an error, so you should be humble in your approach.

DO: Explain the basics of your situation calmly, be ready to provide your confirmation number and dates, and ask if they can make an exception to their policy and allow you to cancel. If you booked in the past 24 hours, mention that too. Sometimes if your credit card has not yet been charged, they can cancel the booking without too much trouble.
DON’T: Go into too much detail and wail about how the next door neighbor’s dogs are driving you nuts, you’re thinking of installing an electric fence, and you don’t know how you’ll afford Christmas gifts this year for your in-laws.

Diplomat Resort & Spa, Hollywood Florida
Diplomat Resort & Spa, Hollywood Florida

If they say yes, good for you! Get the name of the person you’re speaking with, and ask for an emailed copy of the cancellation that shows a full refund. That way if there are issues later you have something to reference.

If they say no, take a deep breath and pause. Ask if they will allow you to change the dates of the reservation, or move the reservation to a different hotel for the same dates (if in a chain).

DO: Provide a date or two that you already have in mind, or an alternate hotel.
DON’T: Put them on hold while you go check your calendar, pick the phone back up, throw them a bunch of dates and places rapid-fire and when they pause, scream that you’ll never stay at that hotel again and hang up the phone. They’ll just roll their eyes and you won’t accomplish anything.

If they say yes, thank them and remember to ask for their name as well as an email to be sent confirming your new dates/property before hanging up. If the reservation had become nonrefundable because you were too close to the arrival date, once you’ve pushed it out with the new dates you can usually simply call back and cancel without penalty, resulting in a full refund.

If they say no and you’re an elite member of their loyalty program, mention it casually. They probably already see it in your profile, but it doesn’t hurt to bring it up anyhow.

DO: Say that you stay at the brand’s properties a lot, and that you’d appreciate some flexibility with this one reservation.
DON’T: Pull the “Do you know who I am?” card, puffing yourself up to sound ultra-important. If you were really that important, they would have already said yes and you would probably have an assistant handling all your reservations.

If they don’t budge, you can ask to speak to the manager, and plead your case. This is the time to negotiate as well. If your booking is for two nonrefundable nights, ask if you can pay for just one. Inquire about paying a penalty rather than the whole amount, or come up with something creative. At this point you don’t have much to lose.

DO: Stick to the facts, and stay calm.
DON’T: Bring up how much you hate the fact that you didn’t get a newspaper last time you stayed at the property, especially since you are an Elite member, oh and by the way the breakfast sucks. They don’t owe you anything, and you are the one looking for leniency.

If there is still no flexibility, then thank them for their time and hang up.

If you booked through an Online Travel Agency (OTA), the process is similar except that there’s an extra step. You’ll need to call the online travel agency first, and if you can convince them to waive their fee (if any), they’ll call the hotel usually with you on the other line to see if the hotel will allow you to cancel without penalty.

Embassy Suites Puerto Rico
Embassy Suites Puerto Rico

If you purchased travel insurance, you may be able to get some money back if the reason you cannot keep the booking is because of injury, illness, or death in the family.

If you didn’t have travel insurance or were denied compensation because you just made a mistake and booked the wrong dates, carefully think about your hotel reservation. Is it around popular dates in a desirable location, such as Christmas in Hawaii, a hot concert or event such as Superbowl? Tell your friends/family about your situation. If someone lives in that city and is interested, they could pay you directly for the room and you could just call and add their name to the hotel reservation.

Hyatt Regency Long Beach on Toyota Grand Prix weekend
Hyatt Regency Long Beach during Toyota Grand Prix weekend

If so far you’ve had no luck at all and exhausted your resources, consider using websites like Cancelon, Trocotel, RoomRoom or Roomer, where you can list and sell your nonrefundable hotel room to someone looking to buy at a discounted rate. If your hotel reservation gets sold you get money back via Paypal or Western Union, among other options. I’m especially fond of reading the stories at Roomer, though as a potential buyer I’ve never found sell dates that match up with my dates of travel. Plus, as a buyer you don’t get your elite status added to the reservation.

If you still can’t unload your nonrefundable reservation, at least you’ve learned the process for what to do if it ever happens again.

Have you ever been stuck with a nonrefundable reservation?

Did you enjoy this article? Here are a few more you might find interesting –

6 Reasons Why Your Hotel Key Card Stops Working

Top 7 Things You Should Never Do in a Hotel Room

Magic of Miles in Italy: Florence, Portofino, Pisa and Milan

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  1. With airlines continuously increasing fees, being able to get a change or cancellation fee waived or refunded is huge. Although airlines have policies in place, you never know when an agent or supervisor is willing to bend the rules to help out a passenger whose travel plans have changed. It s important to pay attention to flight schedule changes and flight delays because those events might actually work to your advantage. Do not automatically assume you will have to pay a change fee, even for nonrefundable airfare.

  2. Hi I have mad a mistake with a non refundable booking for 2 rooms for 10 days in patong beach in Thailand.
    I noticed it about 1 week later and quickly removed the credit card details from the booking.com site. I checked my credit card and there has been no deduction.
    Is it likely they will chase me for the money or have another copy of my credit card details to process the transaction.
    The date is almost 10 months away.
    I have already clicked the cancel booking button when I realized it was non refundable booking and checking the fine print they can cancel but will keep the reservation fee which seems to be the whole price of A$5800. Even though there has been no deduction.
    Do you think booking.com will chase my bank for the fee?
    what do you think I should do

    1. tom.G I would call customer service with the booking site you originally purchased on and ask them what they see on their end. If they don’t have record of anything and you never received an initial confirmation number or a credit card charge it is unlikely that a reservation exists. If they do show a cancelled booking they may be able to waive the penalty fees if you explain your situation. If not, you may be able to have them work with the hotel to discuss other options like modifying the dates.

    2. I am i the same scenario right now, accudentky booked a non refundable room, cancelled a few hours later when i realised but it stated that if i cancelled i would be charged the full amount, can you update me on whether you were wver charged, i used booking.com too

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