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Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Christopher Elliott: Insurance a good idea when booking a condo

BY CHRISTOPHER ELLIOTT

I had to cancel my reservation almost a month before I was supposed to arrive. The company refunded the sales taxes and linen charges of $69 out of the prepaid $965. But it kept $896 for the rental.

Winter Park Lodging's cancellation policy says, "If you must cancel, let us know as soon as possible and we will try to rebook your property for you reservation dates and will reimburse you for any nights we are able to rebook for you."

I asked the company if it rented my unit. It says no, but I question its honesty. If you look at the property availability on its site, you'll see that all of the weekends from January to April were fully booked. What can be done?

—May Tong, Houston

A: You have to take Winter Park Lodging Co. —which describes itself as "the best place to find vacation rentals in Winter Park" — at its word. Which is something you're unwilling to do, and for good reason. Its site appears to contradict what it's telling you.

The company's cancellation policy, which it e-mailed to you but I couldn't find anywhere on its website, has one other disclaimer: "We strongly encourage that you purchase vacation insurance for your reservation. Without vacation insurance, there is no guarantee that you will receive any money back for your lodging reservation."

That's excellent advice, but the overall policy leaves something to be desired. How do you verify if a unit was rented? Wouldn't it just be easier to say "no refunds" and not even leave open the possibility of getting your money back, as many other properties do? And why not disclose this policy prominently on the company's website, as opposed to sending it by e-mail — presumably after you've made a booking?

As a matter of fact, travel insurance might have covered you. Or not.

Some policies do allow a cancellation for any reason, but others only offer refunds for specific reasons. And there's no telling if your reasons would have been good enough for your insurer.

I wouldn't have booked a condo in Colorado with an iffy refund policy unless you were absolutely certain you'd be able to stay there or unless you had reliable insurance. Once you sign on the dotted line, you might not be able to get a refund.

I thought it might be worth asking Winter Park Lodging Company if it could verify that the unit you rented was actually empty during the peak of high season, so I contacted it on your behalf.

"I spoke with the owners of this property and convinced them to give the guest all of her money back minus the $100 cancellation fee," a spokeswoman told me.

"Normally we don't do this, but she seems to be after our reputation despite her signing a legal contract that explains the cancellation policy."

Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the co-founder of the Consumer Travel Alliance, a nonprofit organization that advocates for travelers. You can read more travel tips on his blog, elliott.org, or e-mail him at celliottngs.org.

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