Wallet Watch

Don't Let the Bed Tax Bite

As I checked out of New York's W Hotel recently, I was startled to see that my $159 room rate -- a relative bargain by Manhattan standards -- had grown to $182.07 by dint of a 13.25 percent tax and a $2 per night surcharge. There lies the dreaded "bed tax," a costly affliction endured by every traveler who lodges in a hotel, motel or bed-and-breakfast inn in most major American cities.

Stay in Houston, holder of the uncoveted highest-room-tax-in-the-nation prize, and add 17 percent to your hotel bill. A room quoted at a daily rate of $150 will, for a three-night stay, cost an additional $76.50 -- about the price of dinner for two in an expense-account brasserie. Regional neighbors Austin, Fort Worth and San Antonio all have hotel taxes of 15 percent or higher; so do Seattle, Chicago, Milwaukee, Cleveland and Columbus, Ohio. D.C. noses the 15 percent wire at 14.5.

On the low end, according to Runz-heimer International -- a Rochester, Wis., firm that tracks travel costs -- are Billings, Mont.; Harrisburg, Pa.; and Trenton, N.J., all of which charge bed taxes around 6 percent.

When you pay tax on a hotel room -- which is itemized on your bill at check-out, but unlikely to be included in the price quoted by the hotel when you're shopping rates -- you're dunned first with city and state sales taxes, and then the additional "bed tax." Some cities, like New York, also add a flat hotel daily surcharge -- in this case $2 -- to the tax itself.

The bed-tax issue has been around for three decades, but it's currently making headlines because the taxes are on the rise, sometimes in ludicrous fashion.

"They're horrible," says Ryan Francis, manager of state governmental affairs for the American Hotel & Motel Association. What infuriates him, and other travel industry cost-watchers, is that the bed tax is increasingly being used as a tool by state legislators to pay not just the costs of travel-related investments like convention or visitor centers, but for such municipal expenses as filling potholes. In San Antonio, for instance, the 15 percent total tax levied on overnight guests goes to state and city coffers, funds the convention center expansion and underwrites expenses for everything from historic preservation to international affairs to arts funding.

Francis considers it an affront to the tourist -- who, as a visitor, should not be asked to pay bills for local services. "The way I look at it is that local and state legislatures see [travelers] as the goose that lays the golden egg," he says. "The lodging industry has been under attack because legislators feel when they tax occupancy on hotel rooms they are taxing someone else's constituents."

Your options? You could always boycott pleasure trips to big-tax cities (no more Houston-on-a-lark for us, we're going to Trenton!), or find a room outside metro boundaries. At the very least, always ask the reservation or travel agent to quote you up front any additional taxes and charges that will apply. That won't save you any money, but it will at least prevent check-out counter surprises.

-- Carolyn Spencer Brown

Extreme Trivia

Lucas's Post-Monica Prequel Sequel? Return. Of. Phan Thong. Menaceur.

Only in Extreme Travel Trivia can our four consecutive weekly answers (named above) embrace not one but two overheated, overpublicized stories of questionable public value: the sagas of Monica and Bill and Anakin Skywalker and Queen Amidala. Clearly even some of our regular ETT players were boggled: For the first time in a while, a majority of submitters were wrong. Most players had the first three answers correct, but while drifting around the deserts of Algeria mistakenly lunged for a beguiling mirage: the city of Mascara.

Alas, as anyone in possession of the Atlas of Record can tell you, the detail map showing the areas outside Algers (a k a Algiers) clearly reveals Menaceur first west, then just south of the capital. Your best hint to look at a detail map? Our suggestion that this town is where the "close-ups" for the Prequel would be shot -- and that Ms. M would need a "special kind of map" to get there. Tricky? Subtle? Difficult? All those things, and more -- just as ETT should be. Arbitrary? Unfair? Contact our lawyers.

And speaking of tricks, as usual we enjoyed several incorrect submissions. Note to D.R. of Vienna: Ban Bung, Thailand? Please remind us to use that in a future contest.

Week 1: Return Islands, Alaska (Map 29, A13). Easy start: "Chill" at the northernmost Point (Barrow) in the United States; skate south and east past references to O.J. (Simpson Island and Lagoon), Jonestown, Guyana (Jones Islands), and Mafia intimidations (Deadhorse), until you get to Return.

Week 2: Of, Turkey (75, B14). Plenty of Turkey nudges (Byronists: Catch the swimming-the-Bosporus reference?), leading to a "tiny" coastal town with an "equally tiny" name. Yes, K.C. of Kensington, we've visited here before, but do you have any idea how hard it is to find good prepositions in this business?

Week 3: Phan Thong, Thailand (86, S24). Nearly everyone got to Thailand, via references to spicy noodles, Buddhist temples and "The King and I." The region's "intent on doing away" with things suggests all the "Ban" prefixes in the neighborhood. "Look very closely now"? Our first nudge toward a detail map. And the Thong, of course, refers to Ms. M's memorable, but not phantom, wardrobe item.

Week 4: Menaceur, Algeria (95, C7). As we've pointed out, this very small town does not appear on the main Algeria map (92) but on the city detail maps (95) and in that all-important index (veteran players know that shopping the index is the best way to tease out a missing answer). But R.P.F. of Alexandria also found it on the Spain/Portugal map (59)! Um, sure, we knew about that one too.

Travel Tip 99

Beach Baby Bingo

"Traveling with a baby/toddler is a challenge," writes Allison Flatley Cleary of Falls Church, with admirable understatement. "You have to be creative in fitting in all the essentials: toys, diapers, food, bottles, car seat, backpack carrier, stroller and crib."

There's not much you can do to minimize the size of the car seat or stroller, but Cleary tosses out a clever solution to the toy problem: a beach ball.

"I found a beach ball on a recent trip and my daughter spent hours playing with it in the hotel. The ball will not damage any walls or furniture. When it's time to go, I just deflate the ball and place it in the suitcase. It remains in the suitcase until our next trip. It has now accompanied us on three more trips. The beach ball takes up no room in the suitcase and keeps my daughter busy for hours."

Cleary wins a Travel section T-shirt for sharing her tip. Want a shirt of your own? Catch the fine print below.

Travel tips (100 words or less) may be sent by e-mail (travtips@washpost.com); postcard (Travel Tips, Washington Post Travel Section, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071; or fax (202-334-1069). Include your name, address and phone number. One tip per postcard or e-mail. Winners receive a Washington Post Travel section T-shirt. No purchase necessary. Tips submitted become property of The Washington Post, which may edit, publish, distribute and republish the information in any form, including paper and electronic media. Weekly winners are chosen on the basis of utility and novelty.

Exit Lines

A strike that has closed the major museums in Paris and other parts of France may not end soon, reports a French Government Tourist Office official. Since May 21, the stoppage has shut down the Louvre, the Musee d'Orsay, the Arc de Triomphe and other major monuments managed by the Ministry of Culture. The strikers have called for increased staffing and an end to temporary employment contracts. Museums run by the city of Paris or private interests have not been affected. Paris subways and buses, shut down late last week by a wildcat strike, are mostly up and running again. Contact the French tourism information hot line, 410-286-8310, for an update or to see which museums are still open.

A Travel Industry Association survey reports that golf travelers outnumber tennis travelers four to one. The survey also reveals that (not to indulge in stereotyping) golf travelers tend to be affluent, college-educated professional guys with wives who work. Happily, more than 84 percent of U.S. travelers play neither golf nor tennis while on holiday.

CORRECTION

Last week's Travel section on I-95 contained an incorrect Web site. The correct site for the I-95 Corridor Coalition is www.I95coalition.org.

CAPTION: "Prequel" winner Jeff Rackow, 32, a Washington attorney, shares a tender moment with his victory mug. A veteran ETT player, Rackow offers this brief to neophytes: Wait till you have all four clues before trying to solve the puzzle.