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Originally published Saturday, August 31, 2013 at 9:04 AM

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Fighting a $250 smoking charge at Walla Walla hotel

Seth Elsen receives a mysterious $250 charge on his credit card after staying at a La Quinta hotel in Walla Walla. Now the property’s general manager is hiding from him, he says. Can he get a refund?

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Something like this is actually kind of scary. How do you fight back against a... MORE
Pretty easy to handle this. File a dispute with your credit card company. They will... MORE

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Q: I recently stayed at a La Quinta Inn and Suites in Walla Walla, Wash., with two guests. We were there one night, and everything went fine.

Two nights after I checked out, I noticed a $250 charge on my credit card, in addition to the $100 fee for the room. I called, talked with an assistant manager, and was told that it was a smoking charge, and that I needed to talk to the general manager about it.

I asked when she’d be in, and was told the next morning. I didn’t get a call back. I called again during the weekend, talking to other front desk people, trying to find out when the manager would be in.

I left several voice messages, and tried to call the next day, but the manager didn’t answer. I felt my calls were being screened, so my girlfriend, who stayed with me at the hotel, tried calling, and was transferred right away. I then took over the phone.

The manager told me to file a credit card dispute, but that she couldn’t help me, because she wasn’t present during the inspection of the hotel room, contrary to what the assistant manager had told me. She explained that a team of three employees go through a room that is suspected of being smoked in, and they don’t normally reverse these claims.

I asked if she had any evidence after she claimed it smelled of smoke, and she said, “I’m not aware of any, but I’ll check and call you back tomorrow.” I never got a call back.

I am a college student; $250 is a lot of money for me. I have never touched alcohol, drugs, or cigarettes in my life. One of my guests has asthma, and my girlfriend also has never smoked.

I’ve reported this to the Washington state attorney’s office and have disputed this charge on my credit card, but I’m afraid the dispute might not go my way. Can you help?

A: If La Quinta wanted to charge you a $250 cleaning fee, then it should have notified you of the problem after your stay and provided you with evidence of the damage. It did neither. Instead, it charged your card without so much as a courtesy call. Then, when you discovered the fee on your account, it appeared to avoid you. That’s doesn’t seem right.

If I didn’t know any better, I would say La Quinta is trying to make a little extra money from its guests with these charges. But just like La Quinta, I don’t really have any hard evidence that this is happening, let alone on a broader scale. (But if it were, it wouldn’t surprise me.)

I’m really puzzled that the general manager appeared to avoid you and then advised you to dispute your credit card charges. That’s kind of odd. Normally, a hotel can provide a receipt for cleaning services or photographic evidence (ashes on the bedspread or burn marks in the carpet). Advising you to “just dispute the charge” is missing a few really important steps in the resolution process.

I’m not sure how this could have been avoided. Do we now have to take photos of our hotel rooms before checking out? That seems ridiculous, but maybe that would have helped you. If you don’t have pictures, or some other evidence that you’re smoke-free, how do you prove to your credit card company that you didn’t light up in your room?

I contacted La Quinta on your behalf. A representative said the corporate office contacted the hotel and had concluded this was a “training opportunity.” In other words, something went wrong on the La Quinta side. I would agree.

La Quinta said it would not fight your credit card dispute. You have received a full refund.

-- Seth Elsen, St. Cloud, Minn.

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