Spotting and avoiding hidden hotel fees
Locking away your laptop in a hotel room safe for safekeeping? Looking for a quick workout after sitting in a business meeting all day? Leaving your bags at the hotel for a few hours before your flight?
On all counts, be prepared to pay for the privilege.
Following a path set by the airline and credit card industries, hotels are raking in billions of dollars a year in often-unexpected fees, and you might not even realize it unless you read through the fine print or scour your bill.
While some of the fees are an extra dollar or two each day, many hotels in resort areas such as Las Vegas, Hawaii and parts of Florida charge $25 or more per day, under the label "resort fees."
These fees "have become part of the revenue model for hotels," says Greg Samson vice president of marketing at CheapAir.com. "They're a key part of how they make money."
"A lot of consumers just book by the lowest price. The lowest price often has a lot of strings attached to it," says Bob Diener, co-founder of Getaroom.com.
In 2013, U.S. hotels were projected to ring up a record $2.1 billion in fees and surcharges, says Bjorn Hanson, divisional dean of New York University's Preston Robert Tisch Center for Hospitality, Tourism and Sports Management.
Final figures aren't in yet for 2013, but Hanson expects the figures to be even higher for 2014. "The numbers will continue to increase if for no other reason than 3 percent more rooms are occupied."
Hanson says the fees a hotel charges may change over time as hotels "are discovering which of the fees and surcharges are most accepted by guests."
The law and hidden fees
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) also has a say in what's acceptable, and has taken hotels to task for not disclosing all fees upfront.
The FTC sent a warning letter to 22 undisclosed hotel brands in late 2012, saying their online reservation failed to give a final prices. The agency warned, "These practices may violate the law by misrepresenting the price consumers can expect to pay for their hotel rooms."
The agency has broad authority under the FTC Act to prevent fraudulent, deceptive and unfair business practices.
In the letter, the FTC said consumers have complained about fees for things such as exercise facilities, Internet access and newspapers. "These mandatory fees can be as high as $30 per night, a sum that could certainly affect consumer purchasing decisions." In many cases, consumers were unaware of the extra fees when they booked their rooms.
After the letter went out, "The companies we have approached have changed their websites to include mandatory fees in their total price quotes," said Annette Soberats of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection.
Part of the problem for consumers is figuring out where to check for those extra fees on hotel websites and travel booking sites.
On Expedia and Travelocity, for example, once you find a hotel that catches your fancy, you'll need to scroll down past the link where you book the room to find if any extra fees, such as resort fees, are charged. If you overlook these listed fees, you will need to read the fine print in the "trip summary" before you pay. There, you'll see the "amount due at hotel" -- which is in addition to the amount you pay through Expedia when you book your room.
With individual hotel websites, it can take even more searching to find extra fees or resort fees.
Where the fees are
Fees vary, and not all hotels within the same chain charge extra fees, Hanson says. Most often the fees are charged by resort properties and luxury and upscale hotels. Hotels with more limited service "may not have too many things for a surcharge."
"It's up to the hotel or brand owner to charge resort fees on lodging guests," the American Hotel & Lodging Association (AH&LA) said in a statement. The association's 2012 Lodging Survey, with more than 12,000 hotels participating, found 22 percent of those properties in resort areas charged resort fees.
The survey also found that regardless of geographic area, 46 percent of luxury hotels charge for Internet service, compared to 28 percent of upscale hotels and 17 percent of midprice hotels. Only 4 percent of economy hotels and 8 percent of budget hotels charge for the service.
If you want to check out a day or more early, 49 percent of luxury hotels charge a fee, compared to 28 percent of upscale hotels, 15 percent of midprice hotels, 8 percent of economy hotels and 13 percent of budget hotels.
RESORTING TO FEES
Here are some of the hotel fees you might encounter:
(Source: Bjorn Hanson, New York University)
- Resort fees
- Early departure fees
- Early reservation cancellation fees
- Internet fees
- Telephone surcharges
- Fees for receiving a fax
- Fees for sending and receiving packages
- Mini bar restocking fees
- In-room safe surcharge
- Fees for holding luggage after checkout
- Fees for parking at unattended suburban and airport parking
Peggy Goldman, president of Friendly Planet Travel, says because fees aren't always clearly disclosed online, you should call the hotel directly and ask about fees. "As a consumer you've got to be very proactive in asking all the questions."
After you check in
You also need to be very careful once you check into the room.
Goldman recounts a trip to Switzerland with her husband. He'd forgotten his razor, and their hotel room had a cabinet with amenities such as a toothbrush, toothpaste and a razor, which he assumed were free. After scouring the room she found a list of prices for those amenities tucked away.
She says she'd tell consumers the same thing she said to her husband at the time: "You shouldn't touch that cabinet."
You also may find your room offers free Internet service for one device, but you'll have to pay for the second, Goldman says. Or you may have access to free Internet, but have to pay if you want faster service.
Avoid the hotel phone, too, Diener warns, or you could be paying anywhere from 75 cents to a few dollars for a local call.
Some fees can be real eye openers. On a recent trip to Las Vegas, Samson learned that if you to use a chair by the hotel's pool, you'd pay an extra $50 a day.
One of Samson's friends was charged because he received a package at a hotel. He says this can be an issue for people who pay to have their luggage shipped to their hotel, rather than traveling with it.
If your hotel charges a fee to use the gym or to park your car, he recommends checking sites such as Yelp, which might be able help you locate a gym with lower fees for visitors, or nearby parking lots that charge less than your hotel.
Another option is to sign up for hotel-branded credit cards and hotel loyalty programs, which may be able to save you on certain fees, but you probably won't be able to avoid all of them.
Information for the American Express' Starwood Preferred Guest credit card, for example, clearly states that if you redeem points for a free stay, some hotels will still charge you for mandatory service and resort charges.
Hotel loyalty programs may give you things such as free Internet access, free early check-in or late check-out, free newspapers or free gym access, but they won't get resort fees waived.
While many travelers barely give their hotel bill a second glance, Goldman recommends scrutinizing it at checkout time. "You can contest any fees that you find on your hotel bill."
If you're hit with hidden mandatory fees, the FTC recommends filing a complaint with the agency.
See related: Earn elite status at hotels faster with rewards cards, promotions
Published: July 7, 2014
Three most recent Innovations, features, new products stories: