Should I Feel Guilty for Canceling My Booking With a Small Business?

After over a year of the pandemic, even the mere idea of booking a hotel room for a staycation thrills me to no end. “Just do it,” a friend told me. “If you change your mind, cancel the reservation before check-in without spending money.”

They’re not wrong, but even as an increasing number of Americans get vaccinated and set their sights on travel, COVID-19 continues to plague the tourism and hospitality industries, particularly small businesses. It feels tasteless to toy with bookings like that, especially when that room could go to someone who will actually use it—whether to isolate from a COVID-positive roommate, or an out-of-towner quarantining before reuniting with family.

Still, cancellations happen for urgent reasons too: unexpected COVID diagnoses, disrupted flights, sudden changes in travel guidelines. Personally, I hope to fly to the Philippines for the death anniversary of my late mother this June. But given the volatility of travel policies, I might not make it, possibly putting an Airbnb host, a chauffeur, among others, in a financial bind. It’s a tricky situation: Should I feel guilty about canceling reservations or a trip, especially when doing so could negatively impact businesses as they reopen?

“No way!” says Judy Burkhart, one of the innkeepers of The Inn on Putney Road, a bed and breakfast in Brattleboro, Vermont. “In fact, if the reason is something contagious, we want to thank guests for their consideration of us and others at our inn.”

Across the board, business owners are prioritizing public health and safety first. In Houston, Texas, chef Aaron Bludorn, of his eponymous restaurant Bludorn, says, “We completely understand if people need to cancel their reservation due to health concerns and encourage people to stay home if they (or anyone in their party) is not feeling well.”

In Newport, Rhode Island, William Rademacher, the general manager of The Wayfinder Hotel, knows that peace of mind and flexible reservations are most important: “Cultivating a community of repeat visitors in the long term is more important to us than a short term cancellation.” Forget the guilt, they all say. Your safety—and theirs—is paramount.

Just as hospitality industries are being cautious about how they welcome guests, guests themselves are being cautious in various ways. Hoteliers have noticed that events planned far ahead like weddings and conferences are being postponed as dates get closer—often due to safety reasons, or shifting circumstances like financial constraints.

Bludorn also observes that people are making multiple reservations at multiple restaurants for the same evening so that a group has options for dinner—a pandemic dining trend that has emerged due to reservation systems complicated by seating capacity, shortened operating hours, and indoor versus outdoor tables. On the day of, that group might forfeit all but one table, leaving the rest empty at the last minute. “It puts restaurant owners and chefs in a tough place,” he says. “Especially when it comes to planning and what staff should be expecting to prepare for each evening.”

This maybe-maybe-not approach could be bad for travelers, too. Luis Vargas, CEO and founder of Modern Adventure, said that tour operators and travel specialists can’t promise refunds in the event of cancelations because they may no longer hold that cash. “The money that paid for the trip has already gone to the destination, to hold hotel room blocks, for example, or to pay for transportation—all of the things that encompass the guest’s experience,” says Vargas.

If you must cancel, do so well before the booking; for restaurants, Bludorn advises travelers, “cancel 24–48 hours in advance to give other people the opportunity to take your spot.” For lodging, Burkhart recommends trip insurance. “Our understanding is that it really is quite inexpensive,” she says, “and it covers almost all circumstances we hear in short term cancellations, so it’s win-win for us and guests.”

Better yet, rather than canceling, consider rescheduling or finding a creative solution. With tour operators, Vargas says, they can find you another date or experience that meets your needs. If going abroad is suddenly not an option due to shifting border policies, for example, a travel specialist might set you up with a domestic trip instead. Overall, Vargas offers this as a best practice: “If it is possible, keep the money with the business.”

Burkhart echoed this sentiment, suggesting that a deposit at a bed and breakfast could be turned into a gift certificate for a later stay. “It will always be in our best interest for a guest to feel like coming back or booking in the future,” she says. “So our objective is always to do whatever facilitates that. But the pain of short term cancellations is real.”

If plans have to change, there’s no need to feel guilty. But, as ever, be kind. Look out for others just as well as they’ll look after you—whenever you do manage to enjoy the reservation.

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