Question:

What happens when you've already paid for a hotel room but you can't stay in it?

I recently booked a weekend at the Ocean Club Beach Resort in Palm Beach, Fla., through Hotwire.com. Unfortunately, the weather took a turn for the worse the Friday before I was supposed to arrive, and we had heavy rains. I called Hotwire and asked if they would allow me to take a rain check for another weekend. I was told, "No."

So my friend and I drove down there in the storm. When we checked in, the power was out and the computer system was down. The "oceanfront" room we reserved was not available because of the rain leaking into the rooms and saturating the carpets. We were given a parking-lot view on the third floor. We went up to our floor, and as we got off the elevator, it was about 80 degrees with a very bad odor, probably because of the power outage earlier that evening.

At 3:30 a.m., we were awakened by a leak coming from the bathroom ceiling. We packed our bags, and when we got to the lobby at about 4 a.m, the ceiling had a terrible leak, with three trash cans catching the water.

I called American Express and asked them to dispute the room charge because of the weather and the condition of the hotel. I have also called the hotel manager directly to discuss this experience with him, and he has failed to return any of my calls. American Express won't return my money. Can you help me?

- J.H., Lake Mary, Fla.

Answer:

Hotwire should have given you a rain check, not a refund.

Here's the thing about rooms booked through so-called "opaque" Web sites: You get a deep discount, but you don't find out the name of the hotel until you pay. And your purchase is nonrefundable.

You knew that when you made your reservation. Sites like Hotwire make you check an "I've read the terms and conditions" box several times during the booking process to make double-sure you know you'll never see your money again.

But does Hotwire guarantee anything in return? Yes and no.

The Web site handles its hotels a lot like car-rental companies handle their reservations. It offers a "class" of hotel based on a star rating (

), the same way a car-rental company will reserve a class of vehicle.

There's an implied warranty that these properties will be up to standards, right? Not exactly.

Have a look at Hotwire's Terms of Use on its site, and it's clear that the company makes no promise that you can actually sleep in the room. Hotwire's contract says it makes no warranties of "satisfactory quality or fitness for a particular purpose," and that means it can sell you a nonrefundable room that's underwater.

I wonder how many travelers actually read these dense legal contracts. If more did, would it affect where they booked their next trip?

I can understand why you would want to dispute your card charges, but that should be the next-to-last resort, before hiring an attorney. Contact the hotel first. Phoning the manager was a good idea, but you might have tried a letter or e-mail, too. You should have also enlisted the help of Hotwire, which acted as your travel agent and is supposed to be your advocate.

American Express was correct to deny your dispute. But Hotwire should have contacted the hotel when you called it, to find out if it was still accepting guests. How hard would it have been for the phone agent to look up the weather report and determine that the hotel was about to be swamped by the mother of all storms?

I contacted Hotwire on your behalf, and it issued a voucher the equivalent of one night's stay at a different hotel. A spokesman also said Hotwire no longer sells rooms at the Ocean Club Beach Resort because the property is undergoing "extensive" renovations.

Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. E-mail him at celliott@ngs.org or troubleshoot your trip through his Web site, www.csr.elliott.org.