In the past, you might have been able to get a refund at the end of your stay just by claiming that the hotel didn’t offer adequate disclosure. But those days are largely gone. Hotels now inform their guests of the surcharges on their Web sites — 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 can sometimes view through the hotel TV set.
Some hotels have also adopted policies designed to run up surcharges. Matt Blumenfeld, a guitarist who lives in Mount Vernon, Wash., says that he now refuses to accept a minibar key when he checks into a hotel. The reason? If he doesn’t 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 don’t have to use it,” he says.
Even when Blumenfeld is allowed to refuse the key, he says, “I’ve caught charges for beverages from the locked refrigerator.”
There’s a reason hotels are becoming more inventive and aggressive about fees. “They’re highly profitable,” says Bjorn Hanson, an NYU professor who studies hotel fees. Of the nearly $2 billion the industry collected last year, between 80 and 90 percent was profit.
With numbers like those, it doesn’t really matter what guests think. One look at the airline industry’s fee profits, and the hotel industry’s key players can’t help feeling like laggards.
Like airlines, they’ll introduce new fees gradually, over time. For example, a decade ago, the price you paid for your airline seat also included 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 is already doing: It can unleash an army of attorneys and regulators on the industry to ensure that consumers know the all-in rate they’re paying for their room.
Sorensen, the fee advocate who was shocked by a $50 bill for having his clothes pressed, says that 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.
E-mail Christopher Elliott at firstname.lastname@example.org.