How Not to Get Stuck with a Hotel Room You Can't Use When Flights are Cancelled

PHOTO: A screen displays flight status information at OHare International Airport in Chicago, Feb. 1, 2014. PlayNam Y. Huh/AP Photo
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With flight cancellations for today and Tuesday approaching 4,000, there are plenty of travelers who won't get to their vacation destinations. So what happens to all those hotel reservations?

Hotel chains in recent years have gotten far more stringent in their cancellation policies. Gone, in many cases, are the days of same-day cancellations with no penalty. Marriott, one of the largest hotel chains, instituted a policy that requires hotel rooms to be cancelled by 11:59 p.m. the day prior to arrival.

The penalty for not doing so is the cost of a one-night stay. Previously the policy allowed for cancellations as late as 6 pm the day of arrival. (Note that individual franchise owners can opt to use the more flexible policy so it's worth inquiring).

And when weather is the cause of a flight cancellation. the airline will not cover the cost of a hotel for you to stay in to wait it out. nor will they cover any cost of an unused hotel room as a result of the flight cancellation.

So what's a traveler to do? "The single-most important thing to do is contact the hotel directly and ask to speak to the front desk or concierge to make sure they give you either a refund or have them adjust your arrival date based on when your new arrival date," said CheapOair’s Senior Vice President of Supplier Relations, Tom Spagnola.

Other tips for getting a refund on a non-refundable hotel reservation:

- If you booked your hotel with an online travel agency like Expedia or Priceline, contact the customer care line to see if any waivers have already been put in place.

- If no waivers exist, contact the hotel directly and explain the situation: in this case, severe weather. If the hotel is in one of the affected areas they may be grateful for the cancellation to free up rooms for guests who are stranded at their hotel, unable to return home. "There is more flexibility and consideration given speaking to the hotel directly than being transferred to a central reservations call center that may have to follow more strict cancellation/no-show restrictions," said Spagnola.

- Ask the hotel if instead of cancelling the room you can change your reservation for a later date.