Hotels Binge on Surcharges
By MELINDA LIGOS
Steve Lundin, the owner of a public relations firm in Chicago, assumed that by reserving a room on Priceline.com, he could avoid all the surcharges that are cropping up on hotel bills these days. He thought everything would be included in the room rate.
He was mistaken.
When Mr. Lundin checked into the Casa Marina resort in Key West, Fla., on a business trip this month, the desk clerk told him he would have to pay a $14 “resort fee” on top of the room rate for his one-night stay. “She told me it was for parking my car, using towels at the pool, shuttle service to the airport, yada, yada, yada,” he said. When he told her he had arrived by ferry and did not plan to use the pool, she only shrugged.
It didn't get better. The hotel's water system had been temporarily shut off, and to slake his thirst, he opened a bottle of spring water in his room that sold for $5. “It was so sad it was funny,” said Mr. Lundin, the chief executive of the BIGfrontier Communications Group.
Funny for him, maybe, but for most business travelers, such unexpected swipes at their wallets are no laughing matter. A study by PricewaterhouseCoopers published in May found that United States hotels this year will take in more than $1.4 billion by tacking on fees to room rates, [bold and italics ours] more than double the $600 million they extracted from guests in 2002, according to Bjorn Hanson, a PricewaterhouseCoopers analyst for the hospitality and leisure industries.
While some of the add-ons are for items that business travelers have grown accustomed to, like phone calls, new and often unusual ones are cropping up so quickly that Mr. Hanson says he and his team have trouble keeping track of all of them. For instance, minibar “restocking fees” of $2.50 to $5.00 are becoming increasingly common, even if you grab just one item, Mr. Hanson said. “That $2.50 can of soda you take could end up being a $7.50 can of soda,” he said.
Other surcharges that he is seeing include $2 or more per bag stowed at the bell desk, $5 or more for room service in addition to an automatic gratuity of 17 percent or more, and set fees for room safes (whether they are used or not), for holding an incoming package for a guest and even for bellhop service.
At a hotel in Phoenix not long ago, Mr. Hanson found himself subject to a $12 fee for maid service, . . .
It is not just new fees, either. Traditional fees are also going up, sometimes sharply. While faxing documents typically cost $1 a page a few years ago, Mr. Hanson said, business centers now often charge $5 for the first page and up to $2 or $3 for each subsequent page. Some of the blame for the trend, he says, can be traced to an effort by hotels to recapture the money spent to upgrade rooms with items like fax machines—and part of it is a reluctance to raise room rates.
“Most of us are very sensitive to room rates when we shop around, and hotels know this,” he said.
The widespread use of cellphones is another factor, said David Downing, an editor and columnist for Fodor's Travel Publications in New York. “Hotels have lost a major revenue stream because nobody's using hotel phones to make calls,” he said. Except when they have to: Mr. Downing says he has been burned more than once by a hotel's promise of free local calls, only to discover after spending hours on a dial-up Internet connection that a fee of 10 cents a minute kicks in after a grace period of an hour or so. “This is the kind of thing that is in the fine print in a hotel manual, but the average business traveler doesn't read,” he said.
On a recent business trip to Orlando, Mr. Downing thought he would be able to use the hotel's offer of a free high-speed Internet connection. The service was free, but he had to pay $12.95 at the desk for the use of an Ethernet cable.
Kathleen Ameche, vice president of West Monroe Partners, a technology consulting firm based in Chicago, also has firsthand experience of the difference between free and not-so-free. Ms. Ameche recently stayed at a hotel that offered free Wi-Fi service in its lobby but not in its rooms. “I now check with a hotel before I book to see what kinds of fees are associated with using my computer,” said Ms. Ameche, author of “The Woman Road Warrior,” a book of advice for female business travelers that was published in May.
That is a smart idea, said Thomas Sudow, executive director of the Beachwood Chamber of Commerce in Beachwood, Ohio. He advises frequent travelers to get more aggressive about defending themselves against unexpected fees by calling hotels and asking, “What are the out-of-door costs?”
“Quiz them on everything from parking to tax rates to hidden telephone charges,” Mr. Sudow said.
Mr. Hanson's advice is a bit more unorthodox. He recommends that business travelers call a hotel chain's toll-free number and ask the reservation clerk about a specific hotel's hidden fees. “They're likely to tell you there are none,” he said. “After they do that, get their name and number.” On checking out, he said, “you can argue that you were told there were no fees and demand that the reservationist be called.”
Mr. Downing, the editor and columnist, has had some success in haggling over fees when he checks in. Nobody waives them anymore, he said, “but if you say upfront, 'I understand you're trying to make money and I'm trying to get out of here for a reasonable amount,' you may have some success.” On a recent trip to Atlanta, for example, knowing that he would be online for several hours doing research for an article, he bargained the rate down to a flat $5 from 10 cents a minute after one hour, for a savings that he estimates at $50. . . .
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