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The Value of a Sullied Vacation

It was the long awaited extended family vacation, at an all-inclusive resort in the Poconos this past July. The kids had a great time on the bumper cars and in the swimming pool, and we’d had an exhausting day and night chasing them around. I needed to recharge, but sleep was not to be.

We realized, belatedly, that the resort had placed us directly across the hall from the lodge where they held their nightly dance party, complete with DJ. I could feel the techno bass thumping as I lay in bed.

I marched into the lobby, in my pajamas, complaining to the front desk attendant. They had offered to move us. Tough to do in the middle of the night with a young family like mine. They said they turned down the bass, but I didn’t notice any change. Nothing more we can do, the attendant said, but the owner will see you at your breakfast table in the morning. And I was thinking, yes, this is going to cost you.

And one of the owners did visit us at our breakfast table, offering our party some cash compensation, a free meal, and a late checkout. Through my morning haze, it seemed like a good deal, and we accepted it.

But on the drive home, I had second thoughts. The money, while not insubstantial, still represented a small slice of the cost of our family vacation. I was coming home from vacation exhausted. And there was no do-over: I could never get my vacation back, nor could I recover the three precious vacation days I had used from work, nor the miles I logged on my car.

With the benefit of hindsight, I wonder if I sold myself short. I posed the question to my colleague, economist Max Gulker. He turned my attention to the word “utility,” which is defined as the usefulness of a good or service.

When economists talk about utility, he said, “we’re talking about more than dollars and cents. While happiness is impossible to exactly quantify, having a vacation ruined may be a bigger loss than what was spent on the trip and lost wages at work.”

“Some workers get one vacation per year; the loss beyond money is the distress of losing that trip as well as the loss of benefits from having had a week to relax. This component is quite similar to the damages claimed for ‘pain and suffering’ in lawsuits,” he told me.

I was intrigued by a recent blog Max had written about travel agents, which gave me the idea to call one to seek advice for handling a situation like this in the future. My vacation in the Poconos was hardly the first time I’ve stayed at a hotel that has come up short, and it’s a good bet most tourists will eventually face a situation where they are offered compensation in exchange for their trouble.

I spoke with Robert Baker of Global Link Travel in Bennington, Vermont. In situations like this, he recommends taking a hard look at what’s being offered before accepting. Any property manager is likely to offer immediate compensation to an unhappy customer, to try create a “quick fix,” Baker said.

And for that customer, the feeling of immediate recovery is powerful, he said. But if the problem is bad enough, he suggests showing some restraint: Meet with the highest ranking person on the property, and write a letter when you get home, he said. Collect business cards of every person you spoke with that day, and then copy everyone on the message, he said. You may get more compensation in return if you do that, he said.

It’s important to talk with people onsite and in the moment, because a whole new group of people will arrive the next day with no immediate knowledge of what happened, he said.

“I would not take anything you thought was not fair compensation,” he said. Of my own situation, he said, “You could have done far better by grinning and bearing it, and really thinking about it once you got home, saying the value of my vacation was more than what I got.”

Once you accept the compensation, the problem is considered resolved, he said. Most reputable properties make you sign a waiver, he said.

It’s important to keep your cool when going through the complaint process, he said. “I’ve seen it going the other way, people have totally exploded. The agent shuts down, and says, ‘Sorry, you have to call our customer care.’”

Compensation, he said, can take many forms. It isn’t just cash: It could be a return trip, or some service a resort provides, like an excursion or a massage. Until you accept it, you have some power to make demands, he said.

“The pressing thing is, your experience, what you expected, and what you did not get. How do you put a value on that? It comes down to you being comfortable with what’s being offered,” he said.

In hindsight, in my bleary, sleep-deprived haze the morning after, I was in a more vulnerable state. I should have taken the owner’s business card and spoken with my extended family when we got home. For me, it wasn’t just the money, but the galling idea that they would put families with young children across the hall from an every-night dance party. My time, and my right to peace and quiet, was worth more than the compensation we received in exchange.

But by that point, I had lost my leverage. Live and learn.

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