Paying for European Hotels in Advance

The growing number of hotels that require full or partial advance payment, and then assess cancellation penalties, is a sorry trend.

On the "links" page of Switzerland Tourism's labyrinthine Website, I recently discovered a bed and breakfast booking service. What a great idea, says I. Then came the fine print. All reservations require full payment in advance. For cancellations, there is a 60 Sfr. ($38) fee plus the loss of additional money depending on how long in advance the reservation is canceled. No-shows lose half their money plus the 60 Sfr. ($38). Those who plan to stay three nights but must leave after two, still pay for three.

With the profusion of B&Bs - or Zimmer frei - in our three countries, most of which need to be booked in advance only at the very busiest times of the year, this is an obviously bad deal. Few are the circumstances in which a local tourist office can't find a good B&B on the shortest of notice.

The on-line service doesn't seem to be such a great bargain either. What are referred to as "simple" rooms go for 50 Sfr. ($31) per person, while "average" ones are 60 Sfr. ($37) per person. The site notes that breakfast may not be included with these prices. (Rather odd for a bed & breakfast service, wouldn't you say?) "Luxury" rooms are priced at 150 Sfr. ($92) per person single and 100 Sfr. ($61) per person double.

The charming Schloss Matzen (Gemütlichkeit, November, 1999), near Innsbruck, also has what I consider a restrictive booking policy. There is a two-night minimum and full payment for one night must accompany the reservation. The balance is due 30 days prior to reservation. There is a $25 service fee, provided cancellations are made 30 days in advance. For cancellations of less than thirty days, any refund will be based upon the hotel's ability to rent the room.

A non-refundable deposit on any travel product limits the flexibility that is so important to independent travel. A credit card as insurance against a no-show is one thing. A non-refundable advance payment is quite another. There are too many great places to stay that don't require such payments to bother about those that do.

Another little gripe about the Matzen: it is the only hotel in Germany, Austria or Switzerland I know of which does not include an 11% tax in its published room rates. This is not something Matzen tries to hide, but when planning a trip not everyone realizes that a $185 per night quote will become a $205 room bill. So, when you're comparing the price for the best suite (huge, with grand piano) at Schloss Haunsperg (2500 AS/$179) near Salzburg, with the Teddy Roosevelt room at the Matzen, the per night price difference is $26, not $6. (Haunsperg, by the way, gets the nod for accommodations, though it may not match Matzen's forest setting.)

With all this in mind you'll want to read an instructive letter in this month's Readers Forum from a much-traveled, long-time subscriber, Roger Tyndall. Mr. Tyndall is correct, a few years ago we gave the Schlosshotel Chaste a strong recommendation; it is an extraordinarily beautiful hotel. However, though it may technically have been within its rights, the hotel's treatment of the Tyndalls is shortsighted and a surprising customer relations gaffe. One wonders if management would have insisted on charging for that final, unused night if the guest had been a regular visitor instead of an unlikely-to-return American tourist.

Austrian Politics

Some of you may be concerned about recent political events in Austria. I certainly am. For one thing, it's bad for business. Several people I know won't go near the place right now. I try to remind them that 72% of Austrian voters cast ballots against Herr Haider and the demonstrations are massive and entirely anti-Haider.

I must say, for a country that depends more on tourism — 6% of its gross national product and 14% of its jobs — than any other in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, it seems a terrible financial risk to accept a government that includes among its leaders a guy who likes to hang out at SS reunions. According to a Reuters story (Feb. 19, 2000) there have already been 10,000 overnight booking cancellations. As Manfred Stallmajer, manager of Vienna's Triest Hotel put it, "Austria is not very 'in' at the moment.

If you've scratched Austria from your itinerary as a matter of principle, I tip my hat. But if you're worried about an anti-visitor attitude, don't be. Most Austrians will be delighted you came.

February 2000