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Nonsmoker hit with smoking fee by N.Y. hotel

Bernardino Suva is hit by a $250 cleaning fee for smoking in his New York hotel room. Problem is, he doesn't smoke. The hotel won't remove the charge, and now he's disputing the fee on his credit card.
/ Source: Tribune Media Services

Q: I prepaid for a room at the Ace Hotel New York through a site called recently. I had stayed at Ace Hotel in Palm Springs a year ago with a group, and had been thoroughly impressed with my stay.

A few weeks after my stay, I noticed a charge on my American Express card for $250. I inquired with American Express regarding the charge and after a couple of weeks Amex informed me that, Ace charged me a smoking fee.

There's just one problem: I don't smoke.

In fact, I suffer from allergies and can't even be around people who smoke. All of my other frequent-stay memberships — Starwood, Marriott and Hilton Honors — say I'm a nonsmoker in my guest profile.

Is this just another way for hotels to make money? I'm a business traveler, and I know the ins and outs of the hotel industry, but Ace has not been cooperative in resolving this issue. Any help you can provide to shed some light on this ridiculous charging practice would be much appreciated.
Bernardino Suva, Los Angeles

A: Ace shouldn't have charged a smoking fee unless you smoked in your room. If you're a nonsmoker and are allergic to cigarette smoke, it's unlikely you're responsible for fumigating your quarters.

Who did it? It could have been a housekeeper. I once returned from breakfast on the day I was supposed to check out of a small inn on Washington state's San Juan Islands, to find my luggage stacked outside the door. Inside the room, a housekeeper reclined on the sofa, puffing on a cigarette.

"Ya missed your checkout time," she snarled, taking another drag and turning her head away.

I could have been hit with a smoking fee, but wasn't.

It could have been a previous guest, too. Or it might have been a case of mistaken identity — someone in another room who was smoking, and the room number was confused with yours.

Are smoking charges a scam? They can be. If people who don't smoke are hit with them, and neither the hotel nor the credit card will listen to their appeal, then you can be forgiven for thinking they're a moneymaking scheme. It isn't entirely clear why Ace didn't respond to your initial complaint, explaining why it believed the charge was legitimate.

Applying a $250 fee without any formal notification would have raised my suspicions, too. Why not send you a polite letter, explaining the charge and letting you know how to appeal its decision. Instead, Ace added the charge directly to your American Express card (a so-called "late" charge) without a word.

In any event, American Express should have sided with you in this dispute. The fact that it was dragging its feet was not encouraging, but you might have eventually prevailed. Ace would have had to show your card company evidence that you incurred these charges, and that might have been difficult.

Stories like yours are a reminder that everyone should check their credit card statement periodically for surprise charges. If you don't recognize an item, contact the merchant and ask about it. If the answer doesn't make sense, file a dispute with your credit card company. Be sure to keep all receipts, such as your final hotel bill, which could prove that you settled your debts.

I contacted Ace on your behalf. A representative phoned you and agreed to refund the $250 fee. He also promised to make some changes to the way in which future cleaning fee claims are handled, to prevent another misunderstanding.