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Originally published Saturday, April 7, 2012 at 6:01 AM

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Beware of time-zone fine print on hotel cancellations

A traveler canceled his hotel more than 24 hours before he checked in, but is charged a one-night penalty, anyway. Can't Hotels.com help him get a refund?

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Q: I recently booked a room at Hotel H2o in Manila (www.hotelh2o.com) through Hotels.com. I had to cancel my stay just before my trip, but I was incorrectly charged a one-night penalty.

Despite months of back-and-forth with Hotels.com, I haven't received a refund yet. They said they had to call the hotel. Perhaps that was their strategy, to wear me down.

Do you think you can help me get my money back from these folks?

— Anthony Braxton, San Francisco

A: If you canceled your room 24 hours before your arrival, then you shouldn't have been charged the one-night penalty.

But did you? A look at your electronic correspondence with Hotels.com suggests that although the online travel agency received and acknowledged your cancellation a full day before your scheduled arrival, the time difference between you and the Philippines means the hotel received the cancellation less than the required 24 hours before you were supposed to check in.

Here's where you have to go back to the fine print. The terms of your reservation say it's not the hotel's time zone or your time zone that matters. Cancellations made after 12 a.m. Eastern Standard Time are subject to a one-night room and tax penalty, according to the terms. And you made that deadline.

The second issue troubles me a little more. Hotels.com says it can't refund the penalty until it hears back from the hotel. I don't buy that. Did it need written permission from the hotel to sell you the room? No, it didn't. Securing a refund should be as quick and effortless as debiting your credit card.

You were subjected to a ridiculously lengthy wait for a refund. You canceled your room in early July and asked for a refund and contacted me in late February. If I didn't know any better, I would agree that they were trying to wear you down.

In this situation, a credit card dispute might help. I say "might" because the law limits the types of disputes that must be processed, both in terms of time and geographic proximity. Questioning a charge on an overseas hotel booked almost a year ago would require a first-rate bank or credit union that stands behind its customers.

Another option is small claims court, but given the size of your refund — just $70 — it is probably impractical. I think a final, strongly-worded email to Hotels.com might have nudged the company in the right direction. Or from me.

I contacted Hotels.com on your behalf. The company promptly refunded your $70 penalty.

Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the co-founder of the Consumer Travel Alliance. His column runs regularly at seattletimes.com/travel. Contact him at chris@elliott.org.

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