If you've traveled lately, you know the sensation of being nickel-and-dimed. Faced with skyrocketing operations costs, the hospitality and airline industries are struggling to squeeze every last cent out of their customers. You've certainly experienced it at the airport, where redeeming frequent flyer miles, changing your ticket and even checking your luggage are now transactions that incur additional fees.
This a la carte onslaught continues when you arrive at some hotels, a place where hospitality is being quickly replaced by obsessive bean counting. If you're not careful, you may not even realize you've been slapped with one or more fees until it's too late. As you dash through the hotel lobby on your way to check-out, all you’re thinking about is the taxi and your boarding pass. The clerk prints out your bill, you shove it into your bag, sign the credit card slip—and you’re on your way. You may never even look at the bill, and that's precisely what the hotel is counting on.
Ten years ago, this article would have been titled “the most annoying hidden hotel telephone fees,” but with cell phones now ubiquitous among travelers, hotels must find creative new ways to perk up their bottom lines. Brace yourself for the towel fee and the groundskeeping fee, and beware the magic minibar trap. PricewaterhouseCoopers reports that hotels charged nearly $2 billion in hidden fees and surcharges in 2007, up from $1.6 billion in 2006 and $550 million just five years ago. As one chastened former hotel manager revealed, “These fees are added to increase the bottom line, plain and simple. Hotels care about their guests, but they also care a great deal about revenues.”
As travel guru and Forbes Traveler contributor Peter Greenberg says, "In many cases, this short-term-profit mentality is forcing hoteliers out of the hospitality business and into supervising what revenue managers define as an underperforming asset. In the short term, they drive revenue. In the long term, they drive us away.”
Greenberg himself has been subjected to a $9.95 hospitality fee, a $13 resort fee and a $10 mandatory bellman fee in his travels. You may also run into mandatory valet parking fees, Ethernet cable fees and a fee for the in-room safe—even if you don’t use it. And you know that “free” breakfast buffet? Watch out when the waiter comes around with a pitcher of orange juice, which may not be as freshly squeezed as you could be: Beverages may be extra.
“Resorts tend to include energy surcharges, resort fees and workout room fees on guest bills even if the services aren’t used,” said the hotel manager. “It's not fair, and if they’re disclosed, it’s usually written in fine print on the reservation confirmation, which no one ever reads.”
These days, lawyers are looking at that fine print. In Maulding v. Hilton Hotels, Hilton was forced to settle a class-action suit relating to hidden resort fees at 11 of its resort properties. Wyndham Hotels paid $2.3 million to settle with the state of Florida in 2006 after a five-year investigation showed that it had not adequately disclosed hidden fees. Today, Wyndham discloses all fees nationwide and requires online resellers do the same. Still pending is a lawsuit by James Shulevitz against Arizona’s Phoenician resort. Shulevitz was forced to pay undisclosed housekeeper and bellman gratuities that, the hotel claims, were appropriate to the guest's group rate.
Scott Booker, chief hotel expert at Hotels.com, says that hotels are getting better at disclosing fees upfront. He credits the internet, where disgruntled travelers are sharing their stories. “If people are unhappy," he says, "they won’t want to return, and they’ll talk about it.” Third-party sites, such as Hotels.com, sometimes do a better job of outlining unexpected fees. “Our hotel inspectors keep track of all the fees and write about them in our hotel descriptions,” says Booker. Some resorts now roll up their hidden fees into a single "resort fee." At the Ritz Carlton Laguna Niguel, for example, the $25 resort fee includes 14 very specific services, including internet access, newspapers, pool and beach towels and fitness classes. If more hotels follow this example, maybe they can undo the damage and ill will of recent years.
How can you avoid being gouged? Here are a few tips:
1. Check third-party reservation sites for fee information, even if you eventually book through a hotel’s own Web site. The third parties are more likely to come up with accurate “total costs.” When a hotel’s reservation page says something like “additional fees imposed by the hotel may apply in addition to those shown above,” be very wary.
2. Try haggling upon check in. If you think you’re going to get hit with hidden fees, try grouping, say, all your telecom fees or fitness needs into a single rate. If you’re a repeat visitor or a business traveler, you stand a good chance of success.
3. Keep asking questions about fees during your stay. Ask at the buffet. Ask at the entrance to the gym. Ask before the pool boy gives you an extra towel. Ask before you use the safe or borrow a phone recharger.
4. Leave enough time to review your bill when you’re checking out. You’ll need a few minutes if you want to dispute anything. Hotel.com’s Booker says to avoid confrontation and try for a sympathetic reaction by playing dumb instead. “Keep saying that you’re having trouble understanding. Ask if a manager can explain what the fees mean.”
5. Don’t forget about taxes. New York City has an 8.25 percent sales tax plus a whopping 13.5 percent hotel tax. In San Francisco it’s 14 percent; in Phoenix, 12 percent. There’s no way to avoid it; you’re going to pay more than you anticipated even if you do a good job of avoiding hidden fees.