That time I left $3,000 in gift cards in my hotel room safe (on Nick’s mind)

59

a man holding his head

Over the summer, I made a super bone-headed mistake: I checked out of a hotel and left medicine and more than $3,000 in Mastercard gift cards in my hotel room safe. Worse yet, I left the safe unlocked. It was a moment of massive stupidity that caused some stress, but I wanted to share the story for several reasons: first, because it is more entertaining in hindsight than it was in the moment; second, as a cautionary tale about the risks of manufactured spending; third, as a kudos to the hotel for their help in getting things resolved; and fourth, for some quick explanation of my strategy in getting my gift cards back. We all make mistakes, but I don’t recommend trying this at home.

a man holding a glass of wine on a balcony
Me thinking of something other than “Gosh, I’ve got to remember to grab those gift cards when I check out”.

I spent a glorious week this past summer at the Grand Hotel Victoria, a Small Luxury Hotel of the World in Menaggio, Italy (on the shores of Lake Como) that is bookable using World of Hyatt points. This is a very high-end property (base rooms often start around ~$1,500-$2,000 per night during high season). I’d stayed at the same hotel for a night during the summer of 2022 and loved it enough that I made plans to return for 5 nights this year (at the end of June 2023). It was even better the second time around. You can read about it here: A return to the Hyatt / SLH Grand Hotel Victoria, a dream within a dream.

a room with chairs and a fire
One of the many relaxation rooms in the incredible spa at the Grand Hotel Victoria.

Not included in that review was a rookie mistake I had made that hadn’t yet been resolved before publication: On the morning of check out from that stay, I left medicine, used boarding passes, a backup wallet with a few credit cards, and $3,200 in Mastercard gift cards in my hotel room safe. And I left it unlocked. I hadn’t included this story in the review both because it was my mistake and seemed unrelated to the review and because I posted the review a couple of days after check out during my summer MSC cruise, which as you will see was too soon for me to have had the full story.

No, I don’t normally make a habit of bringing gift cards to hotels and certainly not on trips abroad. In this case, there had been a Staples deal for fee-free Mastercard gift cards just a few days before the trip. My wife and I each bought the maximum of eight $200 gift cards, which means sixteen total gift cards loaded with $200 each ($3,200 in total Mastercard gift cards). If you’re not sure why we’d be purchasing all of those Mastercard Gift Cards, see our Manufactured Spending Complete Guide.

I had the cards in my backpack intending to use them on the way to the airport to leave for the trip and I just ran out of time. We had driven a one-way rental car to the airport, so my only option at that point was to bring the cards. When we arrived at the Grand Hotel Victoria, the unopened Mastercard gift cards went straight into the safe, sitting directly on top of the purchase receipts for those gift cards. That was mistake #1: I shouldn’t have put the receipts and the cards together. I also probably should have taken a picture of the receipts for my own records in case I needed to file a police report.

The morning of check-out, we drove 3 hours to the port in Genoa for our 10-night MSC cruise. As soon as we were pulling in to the city of Genoa to return the rental car, it hit me that I had forgotten to empty out the safe. My heart sunk. I had gone into the safe the night before departure but had left everything in the safe figuring that I would take it all out the next morning when I took the medicine. We got to Genoa and I realized that I had forgotten to take the medicine and that’s when it hit me that it was still in the safe….along with the $3,200 in gift cards. As we were in the car and needed to navigate to rental car return, I first emailed the hotel to let them know that I had left items in the safe (including the room number and an exact list of what I’d left in the safe).

As soon as we stopped driving, I called the Grand Hotel Victoria and explained the situation. We hadn’t made any stops other than one for gas, so it had been just over 3 hours since I checked out and it was still ahead of the hotel’s check-in time, so I thought that there was a chance that the room was empty and that it possibly may not have been cleaned yet — maybe everything was still in the safe. The hotel said they would call me back.

When the hotel called me back shortly thereafter, I had some difficulty understanding the person who called. I couldn’t ascertain exactly what (if anything?) they had found, but she asked me to email the hotel again so they could get my shipping information.

I emailed the hotel and received a reply within 15 minutes saying “We confirm receipt of your e-mail and you will be contacted as soon as possible and inform about the shipment”. I received an email a little while later saying:

Dear Mr Reyes,
Thank you for your e-mail.
We are glad to inform you that we use L’Host for this type of shipment.
In order to organize the shipment, may we kindly ask your itinerary for the following days?
We remain at your complete disposal for any further information.
Kindest regards,

I didn’t love the lack of specificity regarding what “the shipment” included, but by this point I had called and explained my concern about the Mastercard gift cards and I had noted them in my email. I hadn’t shared the exact quantity (unsure it was wise to highlight that). The hotel hadn’t confirmed exactly what they found, but they knew what I expected, so I ran with the assumption that what they knew I expected matched what they were sending me.

You can make a good guess as to what’s coming next.

L’Host is an independent entity that contracts its lost and found services to hotels. I had a reservation for one night at the Hyatt Regency in Nice, France after the cruise, so I paid L’Host for the cost of shipping the stuff to Nice (the ~$30 shipping fee seemed totally fair to me given that this was 100% my mistake).

When I got to the Hyatt Regency Nice and got the package, I opened it up (and I video recorded the process). In the package was my medicine, some boarding passes we must have thrown in the safe, a small wallet of credit cards, and the Staples receipts for $3,200 in Mastercard gift cards. I’m sure you’ve noticed what was missing from that sentence in just the same way that I noticed it in real-time: my $3,200 in gift cards was not in the package.

My heart of course sunk for the second time over this. While I had prepared myself for the possibility of this being a very expensive mistake, the hope of skating out of it unscathed had me set up for disappointment anew.

a pool and a building with tables and chairs
The incredibly view from my room at the Hyatt Regency Nice was a juxtaposition with how I felt in the moment given that I’d just discovered I might be down $3,200.

I obviously had the immediate emotional reaction of shock / anger / assumption that the cards had been stolen. That quickly morphed into confusion: what kind of gift card thief would steal the gift cards but not take the gift card receipts? (The answer occurred to me later: one who doesn’t realize that Staples sells Mastercard gift cards). Still, the idea of the cards being stolen just didn’t make sense to me. At a hotel where regular rooms often cost $1500 to $1800 per night or more (and fancier rooms only get more expensive), I imagine a thief would be overwhelmed with temptation and not last long on staff. But I could totally see things getting disorganized and separated and a pile of Mastercard gift cards getting misplaced.

a group of gift cards
Where or where could my Mastercard gift cards be?

I wrote an email to the hotel letting them know that I had received the package with many of the contents of the safe, but not the gift cards. I reached out explaining that there had been sixteen $200 Mastercard gift cards in my safe on top of the receipts they sent me (which were reflected in the receipts) and I provided a picture of Mastercard gift cards in their packaging to show them what they should look like. I went on to say that I had a wonderful return stay and that I recognized that this was entirely my mistake from the start, but that I would never expect the cards to go missing given my experience at the hotel. I asked if it was possible that someone simply forgot to include the gift cards in the package sent to Nice?

I want to highlight my strategy there: It was an intentional decision to approach this as “Is it possible that someone simply forgot to include the gift cards in the package?” rather than approaching it like, “I am shocked that you have a thief on your staff who stole my gift cards!”. I knew that the second approach was a no-win situation: it leaves the hotel in the unenviable position of either having to admit that their employee messed up while having to defend the hotel’s honor by arguing to convince me that it was an honest mistake (which is just a path of embarrassment for them) or admitting that they employed a thief (which is just a path of embarrassment for them). Put between a rock and a hard place like that, I could see the hotel just saying “No, sorry, we didn’t find them” since there would be no “win” for them in admitting that they had the cards whether it was an honest mistake or not.

Instead, I wanted to give them an opportunity to frame it as an honest mistake whether or not it was an honest mistake. At the end of the day, I don’t care about the details. Whether the person who ships stuff has a messy desk and the cards slid under a pile of papers or they found the cards hidden away in someone’s employee locker, I just wanted the $3200 back. And I truly had been blown away by the interactions I’d had with employees at the property, so I really did think it seemed unlikely that someone intentionally stole the cards.

A couple of days later, I received a reply from the hotel:

Dear Mr. Reyes,
We deeply apologize for the late reply.
We kindly inform you that we found all the 16 gift cards and we started the shipment procedure.
We remain at your complete disposal for any further assistance.
Kind Regards,

That was all the response I needed. As noted above, I didn’t care about the story, I just cared about getting the cards back — it was a relief hearing that they had the gift cards. Of course my next fear was that I was going to get those cards back opened and drained to a $0 balance, but the good news is that I got all 16 cards back in the unopened packaging a few days later. I did have to pay to ship the cards to the US, which seemed a bit unfair since I had already paid for them to be shipped to Nice and it was really the hotel’s fault that the cards weren’t in the package I received in Nice, but another $40 or $50 or whatever it was to ship to the US paled in comparison to the prospect of losing $3200.

I went on to use the cards after getting them back and all is well that ends well: the 16,000 Ultimate Rewards points that I earned while buying those cards easily outweigh the costs I paid to ship them to both Nice and later to the United States (though perhaps it would be fair to say that they don’t necessarily outweigh the stress felt in between).

For me, the takeaways from the story are:

  1. Try not to bring gift cards on vacation (duh)
  2. The games we play have risks, not the least of which is human error (in this case my own). If I had lost thirty-two hundred bucks worth of gift cards, it would have wiped out the value of the rewards earned over a long period of time. You’ve gotta be careful.
  3. When you put stuff in the hotel room safe, remember to take it with you at checkout. I’ll probably set a phone reminder in the future.
  4. Keep the gift cards and the receipts separate. I don’t know whether I could have gotten the cards replaced, but having the receipts probably would have helped (and I could have been out of luck if they had been taken along with the gift cards)
  5. If you leave something behind, follow up with the hotel. Be persistent, but be nice.
  6. Leave the hotel an avenue to “win”. In this case, I essentially left $3200 in the safe and they returned it to me. No, it wasn’t as easy and quick as I’d have liked, but it’s hard to complain about that. They got to be a hero finding the cards and I got my money back. I’m not sure if the outcome would have been the same with a different approach.
  7. The Grand Hotel Victoria deserves some kudos here. I don’t think the outcome would have been the same at just any old hotel (heck, I once left a favorite hoodie hanging on the back of the desk chair at a hotel and called within an hour of checkout and they never found it!). For starters, it speaks volumes to me of the Grand Hotel Victoria that they sent me back everything I’d left in the safe. More importantly to me, they didn’t just brush me off when I followed up about the fact that I was missing more than what they had initially sent. They obviously listened and followed up to find the cards. Sure, it was a mistake that the gift cards weren’t sent to Nice, but we all make mistakes. How many times have you received an email response from a company that demonstrated that nobody was listening to you? Clearly, the Grand Hotel Victoria was listening, took my message seriously, and they were responsive enough to take action and find the cards.

I don’t plan to repeat this mistake, but I was pretty elated not to have lost the money. I am embarrassed to have made such a silly mistake, relieved to have escaped from it so cheaply, thankful for the lessons learned, and grateful to the Grand Hotel Victoria for continuing to live up to my high expectations even after checkout.

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