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If you stay, you're going to pay

Hotel guests find bills are boosted by fees for minibars, housekeeping, more

By Billy Baker
Globe Correspondent / April 1, 2009
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If you thought the new fees airlines are charging are bad, check out your hotel bill.

Recently, airlines have received lots of attention for moving longtime standards - baggage, food, drinks, even pillows and blankets - from the "included" pile into the "for an additional fee" pile. But travel industry analysts say the other giant in the travel game - the hotel industry - has become even worse at adding on miscellaneous fees and surcharges.

Industry analysts say that 2007 was the peak year for the introduction of add-on hotel fees and surcharges. And last year, US hotels raked in record revenue, taking in $1.75 billion, up from $550 million in 2002, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers.

The nickel-and-diming can be small (such as $5 for the hotel to accept a package for you) to rather large (think: mandatory valet parking for $50 a night, a notorious fee charged in San Francisco). Other charges include resort, business center, and groundskeeping fees, charges for having a safe in your room even if you don't use it, and charges from minibars with sensors that bill you if you just move something and then add a "restocking fee" for the hotel employee who must replace your $5 bag of M&Ms.

Not all hotels charge such fees, and Boston hotels are not considered excessively bad in this add-on game, according to analysts. (Las Vegas is notorious, say hotel analysts.)

Still, Lucy Slosser, the director of public relations for Boston area Marriott and Renais sance Hotels who said those hotels don't charge any hidden or mandatory add-on fees, was surprised to learn recently that the USA Today left outside guests' rooms is actually billed to the customers, though it's included in the room rate. Slosser said you can decline it and have the fee credited to your account later.

At a time when many are pinching pennies, customers are noticing the new charges. Last week, TripAdvisor, a Newton-based online travel community, posted a poll in which 34 percent of more than 5,000 respondents reported uncovering more hidden fees in the past year. And they're complaining: TripAdvisor features more than 850 user-generated reviews that call out specific hotels for their hidden fees.

"People are more and more conscious of every nickel and dime they spend, and they're finding these fees surprising because they're taking a closer look," said TripAdvisor spokesman Brooke Ferencsik, who attributes it to travelers becoming more vigilant in the tight economy.

Hotels are not newcomers in the add-on game, but the older fees were more straightforward. Mess with the phone, the minibar, room service, or the in-room movies, and it's going to cost you. But many of the of the new charges don't hit you until checkout. Unless you have asked questions upfront or bothered to read the fine print, you will find yourself paying extra for stuff you thought was included.

Bjorn Hanson, an associate professor at New York University who specializes in the hospitality industry, said that guests are very sensitive to the basic rate, so hotels have turned to the hidden fees and charges as a creative way to generate more revenue.

"What's changed in this economy," he said, is that "there's just a more vigorous negative reaction to it."

Hanson said the only way to protect yourself is to do research and ask questions upfront. "When I make a reservation, I ask if there are any other standard fees and surcharges in addition to the room, sales, and occupancy tax," he said.

Experts advise customers who feel slighted to do two things: First, calmly dispute the charges at the checkout desk, where your chances of getting a fee erased are much better than trying later over the phone.

"In this economy, travelers are really back in the driver's seat," said Genevieve Shaw Brown, a senior editor at Travelocity. "Hotels are doing their best to get customers and make them repeat customers, and they're really going to want to work with you."

Step two, hotel analysts say, is to warn future travelers. "It's always good to go online and write a review," said Scott Booker of Hotels.com. "You're helping your fellow man and it's making a difference."

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