How do you know if hotels have gone too far with fees? When Jay Sorensen complains about them.
Sorensen runs a Shorewood, Wis., consulting firm focused on helping travel companies generate money through surcharges and is a self-described fee advocate. But on a recent hotel stay in the Azores, he needed his shirts and pants pressed. A hotel clerk assured him that it could be done the same day.
The bill for ironing three shirts and two pairs of pants: $50.
I didnt know that I had just agreed to rush service and a big fee, Sorensen says.
I know, he says. Its ironic.
It sure is. Hotels eagerly are following the lead of the major U.S. airlines, which collected an estimated $11.6 billion in fees in 2011, Sorensen says. By comparison, the record $1.85 billion that the hotel industry earned through fees, according to a recent New York University study, seems laughably small. But the annoyances can be high, especially when a hotel doesnt disclose the extras. And the hotel business is trying to catch up with airlines.
As the spring break travel season gets under way, consider yourself warned. Your hotel may have a surprise fee waiting for you when you check out.
Among the most common surprise surcharges: hotel resort fees, or mandatory charges for use of the exercise equipment, wireless Internet access, printing your boarding passes and using the pool whether you use these facilities or not. These are most common in resort areas such as Las Vegas and Hawaii, but you can find them almost anywhere.
Natalie Haslage, a state government employee in Gahanna, Ohio, says shes irritated by the surcharges, not only because theyre mandatory and add to the cost of her stay, but also because theyre not always presented honestly.
OK, I might use the Internet and I might print my boarding passes, but those certainly arent worth $25 a day, she says. Also, I love how they say the services covered by the fee are complimentary. Um, its not complimentary if I have to pay $25 a day.
Late last year, after receiving numerous consumer complaints about hotel resort fees, the Federal Trade Commission warned 22 hotel operators that their online reservation sites may violate the law by displaying a deceptively low estimate of what consumers can expect to pay for their hotel rooms.
But many in the hotel industry were dismissive of the warning, and observers doubt that the federal government will act to stop this form of dishonest pricing.
Bruce Kane, a consultant based in Charlotte, N.C., doesnt like parking fees, particularly when theres no way to back out of them. He recently paid $22 for parking at the Hilton Torrey Pines in La Jolla, Calif., which charged him a $22-per-day parking fee.
But drive two miles away to the Del Mar DoubleTree, and the rates are half and the parking is free, he says.
Hotels are serious about these extras. One reader, Ronda Davis, had to pay $34 to park at the Omni Royal Orleans in New Orleans French Quarter recently.
My car was there 20 minutes, she says.
After she questioned the charge, the hotel dropped the matter.
Another fee annoyance: the daily newspaper charge. Joanne Firby works for a medical services provider in San Mateo, Calif., and on several recent hotel stays, she has received a newspaper without asking for it. She later found a daily $1 charge on her bill. Hotels reveal this charge in the fine print when you check in, but its rarely in the form of a direct question, such as For an extra $1 a day, would you like a copy of the newspaper?
They are pretty good at reversing the fee, says Firby. But only if you give them the paper back.
In the past, you might have been able to get a refund at the end of your stay just by claiming that the hotel didnt offer adequate disclosure. But those days are largely gone. Hotels now inform their guests of the surcharges on their websites though not always as part of the quoted room rate or on often inconspicuous notices posted at the front desk at check-in, and in the fine print of your folio, which you sometimes can view through the hotel TV set.
Some hotels also have adopted policies designed to run up surcharges.
Matt Blumenfeld, a guitarist who lives in Mount Vernon, Wash., says he now refuses to accept a minibar key when he checks into a hotel. The reason? If he doesnt have a key, no one can accuse him of taking something from the minibar, which is stocked with overpriced candy bars and drinks.
But the industry has found a way around his strategy.
The desk clerk insists that accepting the key is required but that you dont have to use it, he says.
Even when Blumenfeld is allowed to refuse the key, he says, Ive caught charges for beverages from the locked refrigerator.
Theres a reason hotels are becoming more inventive and aggressive about fees.
Theyre highly profitable, says Bjorn Hanson, an NYU professor who studies hotel fees. Of the nearly $2 billion the industry collected last year, between 80 percent and 90 percent was profit.
With numbers like those, it doesnt really matter what guests think. One look at the airline industrys fee profits, and the hotel industrys key players cant help feeling like laggards.
Like airlines, theyll introduce new fees gradually, over time. For example, a decade ago, the price you paid for your airline seat included the reservation, a meal and a checked bag. Today, most airlines make you pay extra for those amenities.
The fix? When a hotel employee offers you something, assume that nothing is included in the cost of your room and always ask, How much will that cost?
But beyond that, the FTC needs to do what the Transportation Department already is doing: It can unleash an army of attorneys and regulators on the industry to ensure that consumers know the all-in rate theyre paying for their room.
Sorensen, the fee advocate who was shocked by a $50 bill for having his clothes pressed, says not all fees are out of line, but disclosure is a must.
His story, however, had a happy ending. When he complained about his charge, the hotel cut the bill in half.
Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or troubleshoot your trip through his website, www.elliott.org. Distributed by Tribune Media Services.