By Christopher Elliott Travel columnist
Tribune Media Services
updated 3/16/2010 11:50:58 AM ET 2010-03-16T15:50:58
travel troubleshooter

Q: I've been booking hotel rooms through Hotwire recently, and I've been quite pleased with the site — until now. The last hotel charged a $25 per night resort fee, which included the "use of the spa."

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This was mandatory, even though we didn't plan to use the spa, and had not been disclosed in the Hotwire booking process. I tried calling Hotwire about this and they simply kept saying, "It's in our terms and conditions that hotels may charge separate fees for parking and resort fees."

I understand that parking often constitutes an extra charge, but failing to disclose substantial, mandatory resort fees seems inappropriate. In theory, they could have tacked on $100 a night or more to our nonrefundable reservation, and we would have had no recourse. What do you think? — Sonja Johnson, San Francisco

A: The hotel shouldn't charge you a mandatory "resort" fee. It shouldn't charge anyone a resort fee, for that matter.

Resort fees are wrong on so many levels; it's hard to know where to begin. A room rate should include all mandatory charges except maybe taxes (and I would argue that it ought to include taxes as well, but I digress). Resort fees — which are charged by some independent hotels for the use of anything from an exercise facility to beach towels — add anywhere from $10 to $30 to the per-night cost of your room.

If a hotel charged extra for towels or the gym that would be fine. But some resorts force every guest to pay these fees, effectively raising the cost of each room — and raising the hotel's revenues, too. This is fundamentally dishonest, even when it's disclosed in the fine print of your reservation by the hotel or by your travel agent. It must either be part of the room rate or be an optional fee. There are no two ways about this.

I believe either these hotels, or the online travel agents who sell their products and enable their immoral behavior, will find themselves on the losing end of a court case if they don't stop.

Hotwire's actions add yet another wrinkle to this scam. A site like Hotwire, with its immense buying power, has the leverage to force hotels to include all mandatory fees in its room rate. Yet if you read its terms of use it's clear that it won't. "Hotwire rates do not include special fees charged by hotels upon checkout (e.g., energy charges, convention fees, resort fees, parking fees)," it notes. "Customers will be required to pay these fees directly to the hotels at checkout time."

(Incidentally, Hotwire isn't alone. Its other competitor, Priceline, has a similar policy.)

It gets worse. Because Hotwire is what's known as an "opaque" site — meaning that you don't learn the name of your hotel until you've paid for it — you're out of luck if you end up with a resort-fee property. So you're right: Hotwire could have quoted a $69 a night fee, but the hotel might have theoretically charged a $100-a-night resort fee, and you would have had to pay for it.

If Hotwire didn't offer to change your reservation, you might have disputed the charge on your credit card. I know of at least one traveler who persuaded his credit card company to reverse a resort-fee charge that hadn't been adequately disclosed.

I contacted Hotwire on your behalf, and it removed the resort fee from your bill.

Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. You can read more travel tips on his blog, elliott.org or e-mail him at celliott@ngs.org.

© 2009 Christopher Elliott ... Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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