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What happens if you cannot pay for your hotel stay because you accidentally run out of money (can happen) or your credit card was blocked (much more likely)? I assume you cannot arrange the money on your own in different of ways (like e.g. money transfer).

Are they allowed to hold your passport until you come back and pay? What happens if they call the police? Are you going to be fined? Can the police or other authorities lend you money in this or other more critical situations?

I know this can be a general question about what happens if you run out of money while being abroad, but a hotel is the most common travel-related post-paid service.

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I think it depends on your situation as well as the country you are visiting. In many cases you already have to pay in advance nowadays. –  Bernhard Mar 17 '13 at 18:51
    
Let's say Europe, or France even, for example. –  mithy Mar 17 '13 at 18:58
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Really this is going to depend way too much on the circumstances, location, hotel and even the mood of the staff that day. Expect it to go from you'll pay later to going to jail. –  Itai Mar 17 '13 at 19:04
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Hold my passport? My passport is not my property, it's government property. I'm allowed to hand it over for inspection, they can make a copy, and that's it. If their laws absolutely insist I must hand it over, then it's simply no deal. –  MSalters Mar 18 '13 at 15:36
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Why are people so hung about the fact that passports are supposed to be government's “property”? Even if that's true in your country, it's still unclear how that would change your standing in another country's legal system. There is nothing about property that would make your own country's rules about it magically apply worldwide or make it somehow simpler to deal with than other legal concepts. What matters is still what the country you are presently located allows and relevant international agreements it is party to. –  Relaxed Sep 12 '13 at 11:48

6 Answers 6

up vote 28 down vote accepted

In many hotels you can just drop your keys in a box on your way out (or leave them in your room) and the charges will go to the credit card on file. Should you become aware that the card won't work, one approach would simply be to stay as long as you had intended, pack your bags, and just leave. Undoubtedly the hotel will call or email you within a few days looking for their money, and you can sort it all out then. Nobody detains you, there's no talk of police or fines or jail, you settle your bill and that's that.

What if you discover the problem only as you are checking out? Pretty much the same approach. You try a few things - another credit card, offering them a debit card, and so on. If one of those works, great. If not, you put your stuff back in your room and leave the hotel to go sort it out. (Dragging your stuff around while you settle a problem would be a pain, so you want to leave it, and it makes them feel they have a hold on you. But it's in your room and you have a key, so really they don't, right?) If you're sure you can't sort it out anywhere in this town, and it's a large hotel so they can't really track your coming and going, you can go out for a while, then return to your room and leave with your stuff, leaving the key, and sort it out over the next few days.

If it's a small hotel, a B & B almost, that will see you every time you come in or go out, then just plain leaving is a little more problematic. They could try to prevent you from leaving. You will have to be open with them. Try all the possible solutions. For example, in Canada we can email each other money, so I could ask a friend to email me money, which would go into my bank account, then pay with a debit card all in about 20 minutes (after locating a friend who is willing to help of course, and with a device available for getting my email and clicking links.) Or the same thing, but I go out to an ATM and withdraw cash if the hotel doesn't take debit. If you try all these solutions in front of them - emailing and calling people, calling your credit card company and so on - they may begin to trust you that you aren't trying to rip them off, and let you leave to sort it out at home.

It is going to boil down to whether people believe you are trying to cheat them, or really had a problem. A business traveller in a large expensive hotel will have a lot less trouble than a backpacker in a small hotel. I don't think any authorities will lend you money; the best they might do is vouch to the hotel (for example that you really were robbed) so that you can leave and pay the bill when you get home.

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How do I email money to somebody in Canada? (also, +1 for an excellent answer, as usual). –  Jonas Mar 18 '13 at 8:12
    
There's ways to do international bank transfers in place between most countries :) Just ask your bank. There will of course be a service fee, which can be rather steep depending on the urgency of the transfer and the banks involved. –  jwenting Mar 18 '13 at 11:54
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the emailing money thing is Canadian bank account to Canadian bank account and is done through Interac. If you are Canadian and don't know about this, you should: it's way cool and it costs $3. –  Kate Gregory Mar 18 '13 at 12:27
    
@KateGregory: neat! Never heard of that before - and look, my bank even participates! –  Jonas Mar 18 '13 at 19:58
    
Anyone care to post a link? –  jmite Jul 31 at 18:38

Assuming a mature system of law and a country where the police is not commonly corrupt and debts not commonly collected by violent means:

Are they allowed to hold your passport until you come back and pay?

No, unless you agree to it as a means of quickly, cheaply and unbeaurocratically settling the issue.

What happens if they call the police?

The police will probably just write a report, including the identities of everyone involved, unless they suspect you of some crime, e.g. if you do not have a passport they may suspect you to be an illegal immigrant and detain you.

Are you going to be fined?

The hotel may add a surcharge for late payment.

Can the police or other authorities lend you money in this or other more critical situations?

The police definitely not. Your country's embassy or consulate may do this, but I wouldn't count on it.

Basically, you owe the hotel a debt. If you fail to pay it, there are civil law procedures to deal with that. The only way this could turn into a crime is if you deliberately tried to avoid paying the bill. Then it would be fraud.

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are they allowed to hold your passport? Maybe, depending on the law of the country where you're residing. –  jwenting Sep 13 '13 at 5:48
    
@jwenting Why would they care about your country of residence? –  Relaxed Sep 13 '13 at 6:08
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@Annoyed The country you're in determines what the law is. If e.g. Turkmenistan law says a hotel must hold onto foreign visitors' passports during their stay (and such laws exist in some countries), a statement in my Dutch passport that I am not allowed to hand it over except to government officials is overruled when in Turkmenistan. If Kenyan law does not have such a clause, in Kenya a hotel worker could not demand I hand over that same passport. –  jwenting Sep 13 '13 at 6:39
    
@jwenting Well that's a point I have been trying to make in all my comments on this thread (and a handful of others) so I most definitely agree but the country you are in is not necessarily your country of residence, especially on a site called “travel”. –  Relaxed Sep 13 '13 at 9:03
    
@Annoyed hence "residing" rather than "of residence"... Darn words with multiple meanings. –  jwenting Sep 13 '13 at 12:56

This happened to us a few times. Credit card companies can be very fickle things, they allowed someone that wasn't us to pay for $500 worth of CDs across the world, but blocked a local hotel we were staying at from finalizing the charge for our room.

When we travel, we generally only bring one credit card to minimize the potential pain of losing our stuff, and to minimize impulse purchases. We bring enough cash to fit our budget for the trip, and generally don't bring bank cards as well. We try to travel cheap so our budget goes mostly for enjoying ourselves rather than the room we only spend a few hours a day in - but we try to stick with reputable, well known hotels. We don't always stay at a franchise, but we do make sure the place we're staying is some sort of an established landmark in the area that we'll be traveling.

This sort of thing happens a lot, and hotels are quite used to dealing with it. Generally, as long as you promise to pay and have provided working contact information for the hotel to reach you there won't be much of a problem. You just have to make sure you follow up with an alternate payment method once you reach home, or straighten out whatever mess was blocking it to begin with.

Now, if you run up a $1500 room service bill complete with cucumber facials and pedicures and suddenly find yourself without the means to pay for it, you'll probably meet a bit more skepticism from the hotel. Depending on the part of the world you're in, they may ask you to leave some kind of collateral that will be returned once the bill is settled, and they may involve the authorities if they feel that you were in fact trying to 'weasel out' of the bill - just like a restaurant owner might react if you could not pay for your dinner. There's no blanket answer to those situations other than be as reasonable and cooperative as you can to the extent that you feel is reasonable.

Never surrender your passport as collateral for anything, most passports have this printed right on them. That is a vital document that guarantees your safe passage through ports and it should never be given to a third party to hold. Most reputable hotels will be comfortable knowing that they can reach you after you've left and that you'll settle the bill once you have access to your resources. If they won't budge from their desire to have you leave something that would be at least inconvenient to replace if the bill wasn't settled, then use something other than your passport.

Another thing you can do is leave the credit cards you did not bring with a trusted friend or relative - and call them if you absolutely must have the numbers and expiration date for an emergency (I have a few of mine memorized, just from paying bills online).

The final scenario (this has happened to me) is the hotel suddenly not being able to process your payment due to a glitch on their end, and asking if you can settle the bill using cash instead. When this happened, I politely said that I expected to be able to settle my bill using my credit card and did not make alternate arrangements, the problem was their own but I'd be happy to send payment in another way once I returned home. The problem was magically resolved a few minutes later, so one wonders if they weren't just seeing if they could save on the credit card processing fee - something to watch out for at smaller 'mom and pop' resorts.

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Good point re:glitch on their end! –  Jonas Mar 18 '13 at 8:14
    
last one could also have been an attempt to get your payment "unregistered" after which your stay would also have magically disappeared from their books. Saves quite a bit of taxes as well as the credit card fees. IOW a little tax fraud on their end, very common in small businesses the world over. –  jwenting Sep 13 '13 at 5:51
    
Ah yes, 'creative' book keeping can be found at play in all nooks and crannies of the globe. That can be the trouble with going outside of the established chains from time to time, fortunately not too often though :) –  Tim Post Sep 13 '13 at 8:24

I had my wallet stolen once; I had meant to prepay the hotel and discovered it missing then. They agreed to let me pay later, and I was able to arrange a Western Union transfer of cash from a friend who I repayed using a paypal transfer. My advice would be, if you're concerned about that sort of thing, scout out Western Unions or similar transfer agencies near the hotel, as even stricter places are likely to let you leave your things there and rush off to get cash.

Alternately, get a prepaid debit card with the expected cost of the hotel stay -- not only does this still work if your card gets blocked, but it also protects against accidental overspending on your part and accidental double-charges on the hotel's part.

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The starting point is: What can a hotel do if you are unable/unwilling to pay and you reside in the country of interest? Withholding a passport would not make much sense, most local guests might not even have one. Your nationality or country of residence, whichever they might be, do not entitle you to uniform treatment all over the world, it's the authorities of the country you happen to be in that you have to deal with first. The international aspect can complicates things down the line and might seem to be a big difference but, as often, the local laws are the most important thing. The fact that you are a foreigner with a passport will only enter the equation to the extent that these laws provide.

Since you mentioned France as an example in the comments, in this particular case what they can do is “not very much”. Basically the hotel can call the police, which might initiate a procedure if they suspect you arranged to be unable to pay intentionally. Technically, continuing to “consume” the service after realizing you will not be able to pay would count as intent, refusing to provide your name and address probably as well. There is a special criminal offense called “grivèlerie” for these situations but it's only a “délit” and I would be surprised if the police goes to the trouble of arresting you or getting a judge to force you to surrender your passport so at the end of the day they will mostly ascertain your identity and send you on your way. It's basically analogous to petty theft.

In any case, you still owe a debt to the hotel of course and how they can recover it will depend on the laws of the various countries involved. In France, there is actually little they can do, even “aggressive” non-coercive tactics used in other European countries like calling repeatedly are off-limits. The only way is to go through the civil court system and then get someone called an “huissier” to seize some of your property, which is probably too costly for a hotel bill (even companies that have to deal with these sort of things regularly like internet providers or utilities mostly disconnect people and then forget about their debt, so complicated is the system).

But if the country you reside in allows it, the hotel might also choose to contact a local debt collector. Here again, it's the laws of the country you are in that matter the most. So if you live in a country where debt collector are allowed, say, to just show up at your home and grab stuff, your nationality will not generally be of any help. In some countries, debt collectors will also look for you if your address is not current and charge you for the pleasure or make sure you get a bad credit rating. That's what I would be most worried about.

In light of all that, what they will and can do in most cases, is simply ask for an address to send the bill to.

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I had this happen to me last month. Didn't realize it, as I walked out the hotel quite early expecting no issue whatsoever (CC had a limit at least 10 times higher, card was issued and used in NW Europe, nothing unusual about the hotel either, booked online in advance...).

But a week later I received a letter at home, stating that they failed to charge my CC. Weird, because it worked later. I haven't received the monthly bill yet, but if they indeed failed to charge my CC I'll just pay them by bank transfer as requested.

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