Gift Card Error In Your Favor: When Do You Tell The Hotel?

A reader emailed us to ask what he should do about an accounting mistake he discovered with some gift cards. He suspects the different parts of the hotel don’t update the card balance in real time, but it could also be that the hotel’s employees aren’t processing the card correctly. Now he’s wondering whether he should have said something.

I recently visited a Palm Springs resort with 3 hotel gift cards, valued at $100 each but purchased at Costco for $75 each.

Big water slides, lazy river pool, 106 degrees. The kids loved it. And I loved the discounted gift cards good for food, drink, rooms, services — anything on property.

But the discount got a lot better. And not in the hotel’s favor. Apparently gift card readers at the hotel’s restaurants, bars and gift shops don’t communicate with each other, or don’t have a way to update gift cards with current value. So I spent $50 in snacks at one pool, and spent the same $50 again the next day at another pool. The $40 I spent for the breakfast buffet was still on the card when I paid for the room.

Truth is, I wasn’t trying to rip off the hotel. I didn’t keep a balance sheet for each card. I assumed the hotel would do that for me, and that they would tell me when the cards ran dry.

Should I have said something to staff? Would it have made a difference? Or am I supposed to inventory my own purchases and just toss the card when it’s spent?

Let’s set an ethical baseline first, and agree that it’s not okay to keep quiet about an obvious error if you see it as it happens; in addition to cheating, this is a sort of theft by omission (although maybe not to the courts; I am not a lawyer).

When it comes to cash transactions, fixing this is usually no problem. You can point out the error immediately and do your best to rectify the situation. Plastic payments bring a new level of complexity, however, especially when you add employees who may not possess the technical skills to troubleshoot the issue.

So how much should you have to do in this situation to fulfill a good faith effort to pay what you owe? Should our tipster have gone to the front desk and offered to settle the charge? Or if he noticed it after he got home, is he free and clear?

Want more consumer news? Visit our parent organization, Consumer Reports, for the latest on scams, recalls, and other consumer issues.