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Getting less when you pay more?

Stay at a reasonably priced hotel, and you'll probably get a free breakfast, free Internet, free bottles of water and more. Stay at a really expensive hotel, and they'll nickel-and-dime you on everything. Why do we seem to get less when we pay more?
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I recently stayed at a luxurious hotel with great service, but I woke up irritated on my first morning there. Why? Well, I like a cup of coffee first thing in the morning, and I want it (scratch that — I need it) within about five minutes of waking up. If I had been staying in a less expensive property with fewer stars, there would probably be a coffee maker in my room with free coffee just waiting to be brewed. But not at Hotel Fancy Pants. Here I woke up frustrated, knowing that I'd have to call room service, wait way longer than five minutes and pay as much as $20 for my morning fix.

Why do expensive hotels charge more for so many services that less expensive hotels offer for free? Here are some theories.

They practice discriminatory pricing. "Discriminatory pricing" is my fancy term for "charging prices so high that they keep out the riffraff." Let's face it: A nightclub that charges $12 for a cocktail will attract a different clientele than one that charges $4 per drink. Luxury hotels are all about image, and they need to keep up the image that their guests are rich. After all, only rich people think that paying $7 for a mini-bar soft drink is OK, right? By charging high prices for basic amenities, properties can weed out the guests who, quite frankly, don't "fit in."

They need to uphold five-star standards. A friend who works for an upscale chain brought this one to my attention. He suggested that top hotels need to do everything they can to make sure the amenities they offer are top-notch. Let's take my cup of coffee, for example. That free motel coffee may be freeze-dried and off-brand, and you'll have to brew it with questionable tap water. But room-service coffee at a luxury property is almost always higher quality, brewed with fresh-ground beans, perhaps served in a French press. Or take fitness centers. I've stayed at basic hotels with free fitness facilities. These facilities usually include a few hand weights, a treadmill and a stationary bike. Luxury properties may charge for use of their gyms, but their facilities usually include high-tech cardio machines, saunas, steam rooms and even personal trainers. In these cases, you definitely get more when you pay more.

They don't have to be competitive. Think of the last time you had to choose a standard hotel for a business trip or a simple overnight stay. Most likely, there was a Best Western, a Holiday Inn Express, a Courtyard by Marriott, a Hampton Inn and a couple of other similar hotels from which to choose at your destination. They probably all offered similar accommodations at similar prices. These types of properties must provide incentives beyond their loyalty programs to entice travelers to choose them over their competition. Hence the come-ons: "Free Wireless Internet," "Free Local Calls," "Free Newspapers," "Free Breakfast" and so on. Offering a popular amenity for free is a great way to stand out from the crowd.

Luxury properties have much less competition. There are seldom many five-star hotels in any one market. People who want to stay in upscale accommodations will pick them because they want to stay at that particular property, and they don't need freebies to draw them in.

They can. I think this is the bottom line: Hotels that charge exorbitant prices do so because they can. It's called capitalism, folks, and it means that hotels can charge whatever the market will bear for their services. Don't like it? Then vote with your dollar and take your business elsewhere. Or better yet, let the hotel manager or corporate offices know exactly which charges you think are out of line. Trust me: If enough people complain about a charge, the price will be reduced or the charge dropped completely. I've seen it happen! (On a related note, I truly believe that if guests continue to fight those ridiculous resort fees, housekeeping charges and bellman fees, hotels will drop those, too.)

But here's the problem with complaining: It can be uncomfortable to complain at a luxury hotel about what some consider to be "petty" charges. It goes back to that whole "image" thing. We don't want to appear to be the riffraff that can't afford to be there, do we? I'll admit it, I didn't complain to anyone at that hotel about the expensive room-service coffee. I didn't want to seem cheap! So it becomes a vicious cycle: We keep paying it without complaint, so they keep charging it without reservation.

So there you have it — my theories as to why expensive hotels charge more for everything. Admittedly, these are just guesses, and my unscientific research involved talking to my fellow hotel employees at both affordable and high-end properties. But I think my guesses are pretty sound.

Amy Bradley-Hole has worked in the hotel industry for many years in many different positions and at all types of properties — from small luxury boutique hotels to large resorts, both in the United States and abroad. or on!