Tips on booking hotels and on insurance

By Judy Serie Nagy
This item appears on page 14 of the March 2019 issue.

I am a volunteer advocate for Chris Elliott's travel help forum, Elliott Advocacy ( I travel often but have never worked for a travel provider. I previously shared with ITN readers information about some of the issues people have reported regarding booking flights (Nov. '18, pg. 12). In this letter, I'd like to share some of the hotel- and car-booking issues we've seen, along with some personal advice, particularly about travel insurance.

When booking a hotel room, you should be as careful as when purchasing an airline ticket. Be sure you read any confirmations that arrive in your inbox as well as any subsequent emails. (Travelers often don't read emails from travel providers, resulting in all kinds of problems.) We have seen travelers arrive after a long flight to find that their entire hotel has been sold, with the new owners charging more for the rooms. There's very little wiggle room with that one.

Travelers should be aware that different hotel rates are listed for the same room, including the dreaded "nonrefundable" rate. Some hotels lay out the rates clearly, while others just list them all, so you need to be careful to reserve the rate and terms you want.

I recommend always booking directly with a hotel. Reservations made through online booking services are generally assigned the worst rooms and are the first to be negatively affected if the hotel has occupancy issues.

As examples of room-availability issues, in some areas, a hotel cannot force a guest to depart. Or a high-status guest may decide to stay a few extra days. Or a hotel might just be overbooked.

On the day of your arrival, one problem that can occur is a hotel gives away your "guaranteed" room if you arrive late in the evening. If you plan to arrive after 8 p.m., always directly call the hotel before 6 p.m. to let them know. (If I cannot pick up my car and check into my hotel before 5 p.m., I call.) Before you leave home, make a note of the phone numbers at your destination.

Hotels occasionally give away rooms in mid-evening for all kinds of reasons, so always call. Being a member of the hotel's loyalty program might help.

If you book your room carefully, your chances of having a worry-free trip are much better than average. Prepayment may save you a few dollars, but if you prepay and cancel (even five minutes later), you could lose all your money, depending on the cancellation policy. Note that there may be rare occasions when a prepaid reservation can be canceled (though refunded) by the hotel.

For a standard reservation, many travelers are not aware of recent changes in the time allowed to cancel without a penalty.

For years, standard cancellation policy for most hotels in the US was 24 hours, but many hotels have quietly extended that to 48-plus hours. If you need to cancel your reservation within that penalty time, you lose your money. After all, they have your credit card number. European hotels, in my experience, have cancellation policies all over the board.

Don't forget to read the cancellation policy before booking a room. I stay primarily at Hilton and InterContinental properties, and I check the cancellation policy every time before booking.

Some hotels DO require prepayment — a risk each traveler must ponder. Another consideration — if there is a large sporting or music event in town, you may WANT to prepay.

As for car rentals, I haven't encountered any rental agencies in the US that require prepayment, but I DO prepay for international car rentals through Auto Europe (888/223-5555; They are brokers and always find me the best rate. Payments with them are immediately refundable if my plans change.

When it comes to a change or cancellation, airlines, cruise lines and hotels aren't as easy to work with as in the past, so my last piece of travel advice is about insurance.

Trip insurance, covering the money you would lose if you had to cancel, is a new concept for many people. The bottom line is how much of a loss can you live with?

For example, I used to purchase insurance on every air ticket; the airlines made it so convenient. Then one day I realized that I rarely cancel or change flights, so I would only be on the hook for the amount of the cancellation penalty that the airline would charge. The rest of the value would be available to me as a credit toward a future flight. Now I only insure the amount of the cancellation penalty, not the entire value of the tickets.

Essentially, you may or may not want to insure the total cost of your flights, but you probably want to insure anything that's prepaid, especially a cruise. It's really a matter of risk tolerance, and it is a very personal decision.

Travelers seem to think that insurance isn't necessary if you're "young and healthy." That's just not true. I'll never forget a post from a family who booked a cruise. They had booked four staterooms for 10 people but didn't purchase insurance. An emergency came up and they had to cancel. They lost every cent they had paid the cruise line. It was heartbreaking.

Some credit cards now include trip insurance as a perk, but it's important to review that coverage for every trip you plan. If the cost of my trip is larger than what is offered by my Chase Reserve card, I purchase a separate policy for that trip.

To find the best policy for the lowest cost, I prefer to work with the travel insurance broker Dan Drennan (Omaha, NE; 866/979-6753 or email

And I maintain an annual policy for emergency-medical evacuation with Medjet (800/527-7478, medjet I had the policy long before reading about all the problems that can be experienced by even a very careful traveler.

While we're on the subject of insurance, make sure you know what your health insurance coverage is when traveling outside the US. I traveled in blissful ignorance for years, not knowing I wasn't covered once I left the US. Fortunately, I never had to learn this the hard way.

Planning travel today can be a daunting task, but if you make a checklist and ensure all aspects of your trip are properly addressed, it's all good. To me, the planning is almost as enjoyable as the trip, itself.


San Jose, CA