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Don't let bad accommodations ruin trip of a lifetime

A couple rented a Paris apartment for a week for a "once in a lifetime" visit, only to find that the apartment's hot water didn't work. The owner promised to fix the problem, but the couple wound up staying the entire week without hot water. They enlisted travel consumer advocate Chris Elliott to help get a decent refund, but, although I have a great deal of sympathy for the couple -- and confidence in Elliott's dogged pursuit of evil travel suppliers -- there's no way this story will have a happy ending. And it again supports my firm recommendation for such situations: If an owner/manager can't fix a serious problem in one day, bail out, find another place to stay, and fight about the money later.

This situation involves the worst possible combination of circumstances:

*Prepayment in full -- probably months in advance -- for a sight-unseen arrangement.

*Rental directly from an individual property owner, located overseas, with no financial resources or stake in the United States.

*Rental selected on the basis of a posting on an online rental listing agency that acts as a bulletin board but is not involved in the financial transaction at all.

The couple complained to the apartment's owner, who offered a trivial amount of compensation: $150 plus a "free" night on a future stay -- as if these folks would ever want to set foot in that apartment again. The online rental agency refused to help, despite supposedly offering an extra-cost "rent with confidence" guarantee.

That's where the situation is now: an insultingly low offer from the owner, on take-it-or-leave-it terms. The couple might try hauling the U.S.-based online rental site into small claims court, but that would involve many days of hassle with an uncertain outcome. And not even an unlikely full refund can retroactively rescue a horrible trip.

In truth, an equitable solution is impossible. On cases like this, I usually apply the standard of tort law: a settlement that makes the aggrieved party "whole," and there's no way to undo the miserable experience of a week in Paris without a hot shower.

I've come to the conclusion that the only way to "save" a trip such as this is to try for an immediate solution, and, failing that, to move to another accommodation and argue about the money after the trip is over. Look at it this way. A vacation rental for a week in Paris probably cost somewhere between $1,000 and $2,000 (the report didn't say), but that's only part of the total trip cost. Airfares and associated travel costs to Paris for two probably ran at least $1,500 to $2,000; restaurant and sightseeing expenses for a couple in Paris were probably at least another $1,500 to $2,000, so that the total trip cost was likely at least $5,000. Presumably, a dollar value can be affixed to the sacrificed vacation time -- say another $2,000. If the couple had to spend an appreciable amount of time hassling with the owner and stewing about the problem, the result would amount to a $7,000 "trip of a lifetime" ruined by an argument over a fraction of the total cost.

What can you realistically do? If you run into a problem at a hotel or resort, you can leave, find a similar resort, and go on with your trip. Although you probably can't arrange another rental on the spot, you can at least move to a comfortable hotel. With the specific problem of hot water, if the apartment is otherwise comfortable and pleasant, you might find a nearby tourist hotel and go there just for the showers, at a cost of $50 a night.

The final lesson: Don't let bad accommodations ruin an entire trip. When you face an intolerable condition, don't just rail -- bail.