Travel Dilemmas: Room To Wrangle

Q: We received a promotional letter from the Wynn properties for a three-night (Las Vegas) package and tickets to its Le Reve show for $299. We booked, as did some friends, and paid for our reservations; this was several months in advance. When we arrived, we had a room at the Encore, but our friends did not have a room at the Wynn, which was overbooked. The hotel offered to put them at Treasure Island, but they declined. They ended up at the Four Seasons, but the hotel then said they couldn't have their show tickets because they weren't staying at the Wynn. They argued the point and got the tickets. How can hotels do something like this?

—S. and T. McGraham, Mohave Valley, Ariz.

A: Think of the last party you threw. How many people said they were coming, then didn't show up or called at the last minute to say they had a sick kid/dog/spouse?

So there will always be cancellations, whether it's your fabulous dinner party or a hotel or an airline. Unlike you, hotels and airlines can't use leftovers. A room not sold or a seat unfilled is revenue lost.

Chad Gruhl, a professor of hotel management at Metropolitan State College of Denver, estimates that hotels overbook by 5 percent. At the Wynn, that should mean about 135 rooms. It's unclear how many of these 135 showed up, but clearly there was no room at the Wynn.

Therein begins the delicate dance with the hotel. The McGrahams' friends were right to turn down the Treasure Island. A hotel is supposed to offer a comparable room. In this case, Treasure Island isn't on the same level as the Wynn, which leads to this point: You have the right to expect to be accommodated, and you have the right to say no if the proffered fix doesn't seem comparable.

As for the show tickets, I asked Al Anolik, a San Francisco travel lawyer and author of "Traveler's Rights: Your Legal Guide to Fair Treatment and Full Value," if the Wynn could take them away. Anolik says no. "It's the same concept (as the hotel room)," he said. "If my hotel included breakfast in bed ... that was part of the package," he said. The Wynn "broke the contract and they are responsible," he said.

A Wynn representative called the overbooking "a regrettable anomaly" and said it offered "generous compensation for the inconvenience that included a complimentary future stay for two nights. But a May 19 article in the Las Vegas Sun recounts a similar tale of overbooking (different guests); a Wynn spokesman also called that a "rare occurrence," the Sun said.

Besides the financial implications, such an experience means fallout for the hotel. "All you're going to do is hurt your own reputation," Gruhl said. "The cost of recovering from something like that is astronomical. They need to have a Plan B."

In this case, the B in Wynn's backup plan should have stood for "Be Prepared for Unhappy Customers." Instead, it became a Wynn/lose situation.