Hilton’s sleight of hand: watch your cancellation deadline


Stephen recently wrote about Marriott’s Sleight of Hand in how they presented their new award chart changes (See: Marriott’s Sleight of Hand: Category Changes Worse Than Advertised). Hilton recently nearly pulled a fast one on one of my reservations (in a completely different way) before swooping in with what they presented as a customer service win. In the end, I learned a lesson: monitor the cancellation deadline on your reservations.

A hot deal, booked far in advance

One of the Twitter accounts I follow is Extreme Hotel Deals. While they post plenty of details that are valid for a single date / location that doesn’t work for me, they sometimes have a gem that does — and often the deals are stellar. Last July, they popped up with a deal at the Capital Hilton in Washington, DC: the Presidential Suite was available for $179 per night.

The tweet shows $209, but it was even better.

That’s a pretty amazing deal for a Presidential Suite, the rates for which can often be sky-high. Here’s another (more expensive) date I pulled up at the time — on another night, that suite came up at over $2,800 per night before tax.

Yet, as Extreme Hotel Deals had noted, I found dates when it was available for $179 per night or 56,000 Hilton points (less than the rate of the junior suite or “pure rooms”).

I decided to go ahead and book it for dates nearly a year in advance — in July 2017, I made a reservation for that room checking in on June 22, 2018. Being Hilton points rich at the time and not really wanting to blow $200+ per night after taxes on a room I was booking on a lark, I decided to book it on Hilton Honors points for 56K per night. That definitely represents a pretty poor value on Hilton points in comparison to the (artificially low) room rate, but that’s a discussion for another day.

At the time, I knew my wife and I would be ~5 months into parenthood when that reservation would come up, and I knew then that I didn’t know what to expect. I made sure to double-check the cancellation policy before booking. It showed cancellations were required by 11:59pm on June 20, 2018 local hotel time.

It also said under that line that “cancellation penalties may apply”. I decided to take that to mean that they may apply if I didn’t cancel in time.

Fast forward nearly a year to the week of the trip. My wife got sick that week and Baby Rey (no, he’s not really named Rey Reyes – names have been changed to protect the innocent) started coughing and seemed like he might be picking it up. As much fun as it seemed it would be to have a suite with a baby grand piano that Harry Truman once played, it was clearly going to be exponentially less fun if 2/3 of the family were under the weather.

Wanting to be sure we couldn’t make it work, I waited it out until the last minute. One thing I dislike about 48-hour or longer cancellation deadlines is that I need to be a bit more conservative than I’d like. I knew it was possible that everything would be fine by the 22nd, but I didn’t want to gamble beyond the deadline, especially since I knew we wouldn’t travel with the baby if he did indeed come down with mom’s bug. On June 20th, it was clear that things weren’t yet on the rebound for my wife, so I pulled up the Hilton app on my phone to make the cancellation.

To my surprise, the app said that I could not change or modify the reservation. That didn’t make sense to me. My brain remembers the strangest things, and I had remembered the 48-hour cancellation policy on the room. I scrolled down in the app to check the cancellation policy — and it said that cancellations were required by June 19, 2018 at 11:59pm local hotel time (one day earlier than I was calling). It also said that late cancellations would be subject to a one-night charge as a penalty. I momentarily panicked that my wife would kill me if this were my mistake and we somehow got charged a 1-night penalty at full price for the Presidential Suite, so I didn’t think to take a screen shot of that June 19th cancellation deadline.

However, I knew it didn’t seem right to me — so I went back to find the original confirmation email. Sure enough, the screen shot above (with the June 20th deadline) came from my confirmation email, sent by Hilton in July 2017.

In the past, I’ve had luck with calling a hotel directly when I needed to cancel late and I’ve had surprising luck with avoiding penalty on late cancellations. I knew this wasn’t really a late cancellation as my email showed a June 20th deadline, but I figured it wouldn’t hurt to call the Capital Hilton to speak with someone at the hotel. The agent who answered my call looked at my reservation and as she read the details, she mentioned that the cancellation deadline was passed. She immediately asked me to please hold so she could get someone from the Hilton Diamond desk on the line. I interjected with my surprise, noting that my email confirmation showed a deadline of June 20th. Seemingly without really registering what I said, she reiterated that she was transferring me to the Diamond desk. I figured that I should be able to plead my case there, so I didn’t push with Capital Hilton employee.

A very polite and professional agent answered from the Hilton Diamond desk. I gave her the information for the reservation I needed to cancel. She pulled it up and also murmured about how we were past the cancellation deadline, so she would have to reach out to the hotel and put me on a brief hold. I figured I’d see how this played out and just agreed to the hold without protesting the policy change.

During the hold, I Googled changes in cancellation policies and had found that Hilton had gone to a strict 48-hour cancellation policy, with 72-hours required in some instances, in July 2017. My confirmation email clearly showed the 48-hour cancellation policy, so I was ready to duke this one out if need be.

However, two or three minutes later, that wasn’t necessary. The agent came back on the line and let me know that she had cancelled my reservation and had already redeposited my points and wanted to know if there was anything else she could help me with today. Awesome — the weight of a thousand-plus-dollar room was off my shoulders. I thanked her and hung up the phone.

When I pulled up the app shortly thereafter and also when I viewed the cancellation email, I noticed that both emphasized the fact that this was a late cancellation.

Based on the tone of both the hotel employee and the Hilton Diamond agent, I don’t think that either of them saw my original cancellation deadline when they pulled up my reservation. In this case, I definitely came away with the impression that they thought they were doing me a favor in making this cancellation. In fairness, assuming that they did indeed only see the June 19th deadline (and the email confirmation and app late cancel notification seem to support that), they were indeed offering excellent service as far as they knew. I hadn’t even bothered to explain to the Diamond agent about the June 20th deadline in my email, figuring there was no sense in fighting prematurely and then no sense looking a gift horse in the mouth once the cancellation was done. The fact that they got the reservation cancelled and refunded within a couple of minutes despite being “past the cancellation deadline” on what is normally a very expensive suite in a major city would certainly be a customer service feat in most instances and would line right up with my customer service experiences with Hilton over the past few years. Hilton takes a beating because of their mostly revenue-based award system, but they have rarely missed a chance to impress me with good customer service over the past few years.

Of course, in this case, it wasn’t really the customer service win that they seemed to think it was since I was within the cancellation deadline under which I had booked. Thankfully, I hadn’t deleted that old email (I always keep travel-related emails) and would have had it to fall back on if need be. I’m glad that Hilton’s customer service meant that I didn’t have to flex the old email, but I am simultaneously disappointed that Hilton would change the cancellation policy after booking. That’s a sneaky move that I would not have expected. I wonder how many people, on a cheaper one-night stay perhaps, might just assume the app is correct and resign themselves to losing a night’s room rate.

At first glance, it would be easy to assume that this was an isolated incident — some sort of glitch one way or another. However, I’m fairly certain I have seen this happen with other reservations. I usually tend to my reservations fairly regularly and make adjustments well in advance if necessary. A few times, I’ve thought that the cancellation deadline didn’t match what I’d remembered (speaking of reservations across different brands here, not just Hilton), but I hadn’t found myself in the position for it to matter and thus hadn’t double checked. In the future, I’ll certainly be eyeing cancellation policies more closely and being sure to take screen shots at booking.

Bottom line

At some point, Hilton changed the cancellation policy on my room and never let me know. As a Diamond member, I consistently get good service from Hilton and the Hilton Honors Diamond department was able to get the room cancelled and refunded. However, the takeaway for me was this: keep an eye on your hotel’s cancellation policy, especially as you near the deadline for cancellation, and keep your confirmation emails / screen shots. I feel confident that even if I had run up against a brick wall initially, I’d have had the tools necessary to resolve this with either Hilton or the credit card company. I’m glad I didn’t have to, but it reinforces the importance of hanging on to your travel confirmations – lest the hotel try to pull a fast one with policy.

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