When you head out on vacation or for a weekend getaway, you’re dreaming about the awesome pool, the delectable food and drink, and the time you’re about to spend with your family, right?
The last thing people think about is the legal relationships they’re about to enter into with the airline, the hotel, the taxi service, and any number of other service providers along the way. And nobody’s thinking at all about what might happen if a rabid mongoose comes into the pool area and bites you while sunbathing. (It’s happened!)
I’m not saying you should think about the legalities every single time you travel, but trust me – the airlines, hotels, and service providers have, and so a basic awareness of your traveler rights and obligations is probably a good thing.
Recent events have focused on airline passenger rights (or lack thereof), but hotels often make headlines as well for not-so-great things. And I’m sure as you’ve traveled around the United States, you’ve seen one of these on the back of your hotel room door:
Why Are These Signs in Every U.S. Hotel Room?
Forgive me for nerdin’ out on you, as my kids say, but in addition to my Traveling Dad life I’m a lawyer and human resources guy. So reading all the signs I come across in my travels and unraveling their mysteries are kind of who I am and what I do – and it also helps to have read all this stuff when there’s a problem to be solved.
I’m not talking about a little problem like lack of towels in your room, a leaky faucet, or carpet that smells like toddler vomit – you and hotels know how to solve those things without reading fine legal print.
I’m talking about big things like money – what would you do if you reserved a room for $100 a night and at the end of your five-night stay the hotel told you the cost was $200 a night? Or when you packed up to leave after breakfast, all of your electronic devices were missing from the room?
A Short History Lesson – Room Rates
In the “old days” (think “Little House on the Prairie” not “Happy Days”), the country was made up of a few states and territories and travel was long and arduous. It was a big deal to go from one state to another, and even more to head out to the territories. Travel was by horse, foot, or carriage if you were fortunate. Places to stay overnight were few and far between, and the ones that did exist were not always run by the most scrupulous of innkeepers.
For example, a traveler might have some business in a town where accommodations cost $5 a night, but when the traveler showed up in fancy clothes the innkeeper might just decide that traveler should pay $10 a night – kind of the reaction we all have today when we go to check out and see per-day “resort fees” tacked on to our bills without any notice.
Well, the law always lags behind and plays catch-up to business practices. But eventually, laws were passed to protect travelers by requiring inns and hotels to disclose nightly room rates before the traveler checks in, and to honor their commitments.
(And now, of course, all the signs inside the hotel rooms contain outrageously high rates that they will never and would never charge in a million years, just so they can maneuver freely below that number. Sigh.)
Another Short History Lesson – Valuables
In the frontier days of horses and stagecoaches, travelers selling goods carried samples. Those samples were valuable. Think fine clothing, jewelry, and fabric. And – just like today – hotels and inns solicited business travelers.
However, under the “common law,” hotels were liable for the full value of loss or damage to guests’ property (unless the damage was caused by a natural disaster like a flood or a hurricane). So along with the lucrative business travelers, hotels had a lot of risk and unknown liability floating around. While the guest in Room #1 might only have a few changes of clothes, the guest in Room #5 might be in jewelry sales and could be transporting thousands of dollars of merchandise. For a hotel, being at risk for the loss of valuable property it didn’t own kind of sucked.
Hoteliers and innkeepers found they really didn’t like writing out a check or going to court when a guest’s fancy dress or imported leather valise was stolen from the room. Not wanting to be responsible for the personal belongings and property of all of the hotel’s guests, the innkeepers and hoteliers found a way to convince legislatures to pass laws protecting hotel owners, in addition to their guests.
And so today, hotels and inns offer either front-desk or in-room safes and inform guests that they should use the safes provided for storage of their valuables. And when the guests don’t use the safes for their Rolexes, diamond necklaces, and money clips, and they are stolen from the room, the hotel is typically absolved of liability.
Back to the Future – Hospitality Law
Today, on the back of most hotel room doors you’ll see a small piece of paper telling the traveler what his or her rights are, and what the rights are of the inn or hotel. You may need a magnifying glass to read it, but they contain important items setting out the terms of your legal relationship with the hotel.
FIVE THINGS YOU SHOULD KNOW AS A TRAVELER:
- Every state in the US has some sort of innkeeper liability or consumer protection law governing the rights and responsibilities of hoteliers and hotel guests.
- Hotels and innkeepers have trade groups and associations, so many of the laws tend to be more protective of the hotels and inns than of the travelers.
- In some states, upon your check-in the hotel actually has a lien on the personal property you bring in to the hotel, which the hotel can levy upon if you don’t pay the charges due upon checkout. (Footnote for parents – kids aren’t considered “personal property.” Nice try.)
- Many states require posting of a “maximum daily rate” to help prevent price gouging, but that rate can be changed easily, hotels can require minimum night stays, and in reality can charge whatever the market will bear.
- Finally, you probably don’t need a lawyer or legal advice unless you have a really expensive or unusual problem with your hotel. It’s amazing how often problems can be solved between humans who simply decline to discuss “legal rights” and just treat each other kindly.
There you have it – hotel laws are in place to protect you and your family, but most of the time the hotel is going to try to treat you well and keep your business (and avoid negative online reviews – something that frontier innkeepers didn’t have to worry about).
(By the way, the mongoose-bite story is real, it happened at a hotel in Puerto Rico, and the guest lost her case – the court held that the hotel was not responsible for the guest’s injury because it could not have foreseen that a wild mongoose would enter its property and bite a sunbathing guest.)