Photo (cc) by Tim Evanson
It’s like an episode of “Unsolved Mysteries” that plays itself endlessly for travelers.
It happened to Judith Searcy when she stayed at the Portland Marriott Downtown Waterfront in Oregon this summer. If you check your credit card statement, you may find that it has happened to you, too.
For Searcy, the mystery was a $518 pending charge to her card after she checked out of the Marriott. “I had not been told of this charge, nor did I have any documentation for it,” says Searcy, who is retired and lives in Austin. She phoned Marriott, which asked her to leave a voice mail for a manager.
Days later, the $518 charge disappeared.
Identifying this mystery is easy, but solving it isn’t. There’s an explanation for these charges, and a valid reason for having them. But they can also be frustrating to hotel guests, especially those who receive unexpected alerts from their credit card companies. And they raise the question: Is there a better way?
What’s the explanation?
Unlike most other travelers, who might have been content with the reversal, Searcy asked for an explanation. She finally received one after reaching Tiffany Bush, the hotel’s general accountant. Turns out the charge was a routine credit card “hold.”
“This charge happened at check-in when your card was first swiped and our system automatically authorizes for possible incidental charges,” Bush wrote in an email. “Our system will continue to check that the card has enough funds as you add charges to your room.”
Marriott, like other hotels, discloses the hold at check-in. “Credit card holds are typically released within 24 hours of checking out,” says Marriott spokesman John Wolf, who notes that holds are an industry-wide practice, common among hotels and car rental companies.
Most hotels place a hold on your credit card, according to Dale Blosser, a lodging consultant. The amount varies, but as a rule, it’s the cost of the room, including tax, plus a set charge of between $50 and $200 per day. “That basically establishes a line of credit for typical items that the guest might charge to the room, such as room service, restaurant or bar charges, gift shop merchandise or valet parking fees,” Blosser says.
There’s another reason for a hold: It’s a security deposit of sorts, in case you trash the room. “It’s a way to [ensure] against damage or loss,” says Kari Luckett, a financial expert who edits the credit card website CompareCards.com. The more expensive the room, the greater chance you’ll experience a generous hold, she adds. “It’s usually from five-star hotels and hotels that pack the room with food and drinks or offer room service or concierge.”
But that’s just one part of the mystery. The other is what happens behind the scenes with your credit or debit card.