Hotels tweak cancellation policies, and not to make them more consumer-friendly.

New hotel cancellation policies will mean more fees

hotel cancellation policiesYears ago, hotel cancellation policies were easy. Rooms could be canceled relatively last minute, except during holiday and special event times. Now, sometimes, it feels like it requires an advanced degree to figure out all the rules. For consumers, Hilton is about to make things even worse.

Hilton has been quietly testing a “Semi-Flex” rate, along with regular rates, and nonrefundable rates. The new rate may be as little as one percent less than the regular rates, but it will have a more restrictive hotel cancellation policy.

Hilton’s new semi- and full-flexible rates

Hilton’s regular rates — or “best available” and most corporate rates — will now be called “fully-flexible rates.”  Except they aren’t THAT fully-flexible — they have a 48- to 72-hour advance cancellation policy. The new rates will have a four- or five-DAY advance cancellation rule to avoid a no-show charge. And, that time limit will be local time, sometimes as early as 12 am (midnight). For example, travelers on the West Coast going to the East Coast, or anyone flying overseas, might have to add another day to that.

Of course, these hotel cancellation policies will be spelled out at time of booking. However, they will require careful reading, something that, in my experience as a travel agent, Americans are not always really good at doing, especially when they are looking at small screens on their smartphones.

In addition, I think the hotel cancellation policies’ names are a bit misleading. For years I’ve heard complaints about the term “Hilton Saver” rates, which are generally nonrefundable. And, if someone sees “Semi-Flexible” and “Fully-Flexible,” it’s not unreasonable in my mind to assume the “Fully-Flexible” rates can still result in a cancellation charge with a three-day notice.

Download Hotel Early Check-In ChecklistWhile a situation where a traveler is a very frequent guest or the travel agent books a lot of one particular hotel, consumers MIGHT get lucky if they have an emergency and need to cancel, Hilton isn’t kidding on this, either. (I had a client at a nearby Hilton Garden Inn let me know first thing Monday morning that his Tuesday meeting was canceled, and the hotel, which was not full, refused to budge, or even give him a credit on a future stay.)

Hilton adds complexity to hotel booking

Hilton probably isn’t going to say “are you SURE you want to give up 3 days worth of flexibility for $3?” Hilton’s website would probably mirror the airline websites. These don’t really ask, “Are you SURE you want basic economy when it’s less to upgrade to regular fare than it will be to check one bag?” or, “You know you don’t get miles on this fare, right?” and so on.

Hotels claim consumers have contributed to these more restrictive rules since some travelers — not all, but some — increasingly look for last minute deals. They use apps that can search for last-minute and book a hotel with the full expectation of canceling if they can get a better rate nearby.

However, for most travelers, these newer rules will mean more fine print and more fees. If Hilton doesn’t lose market share with these new rules, other hotel chains will be right behind.