The FTC warning has been referred to the group’s attorneys, McInerney says. “We’ll probably send out an advisory to our members soon.”
Other hotel companies either didn’t respond to my questions or said that they hadn’t received the FTC letter. Of the major American hotel chains that I contacted, only Marriott, which owns the Courtyard, Renaissance and Ritz-Carlton brands, said that it had been warned. But a company spokesman says that Marriott is already following the law. “We do disclose fees before the booking is completed,” says John Wolf, a Marriott spokesman. “We believe we are in compliance.”
Gary Cohen begs to differ. He says that he was surprised when Ritz-Carlton tacked a $25 resort fee to a recent $600-a-night rate. The amenities should have been included in the room price, he says, not separated as a mandatory fee. “Do you really need to nickel-and-dime your guests another $25?” asks Cohen, the president of a health food company in Sacramento. “I guess in the case of the Ritz, the answer is yes.”
What’s going on here? Hotels want to quote a low base rate to entice guests to book their rooms, while travelers just want to know the total cost from the start.
For now, it appears that the FTC will allow hotels and online agencies to continue displaying an artificially low price, as long as they reveal the full rate at some point before a purchase is made. But the FTC is just getting started, and the government can tighten its requirements or force the industry to change the way it displays prices through a series of enforcement actions or lawsuits as it tries to address the problem of drip pricing.
In the meantime, customers who find a mysterious resort fee at the end of a booking path can do what Cohen and Hatch did: complain. Cohen says that Ritz-Carlton never responded to his grievance, but Hatch’s resort fee in Bar Harbor was stricken from her bill.
Maybe the FTC’s actions haven’t killed mandatory resort fees. In fact, no matter where or how the fees are disclosed, NYU’s Hanson says, they’ll continue to exist because they allow a hotel to avoid paying certain taxes on them. But “gotcha” resort fees as we know them in the United States may be mortally wounded.
Elliott is National Geographic Traveler magazine’s reader advocate. E-mail him at email@example.com.