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At hotels, the word ‘free’ can be misleading

In-room perks such as bottled water can reappear later — on your hotel bill.
In-room perks such as bottled water can reappear later — on your hotel bill. (iStock)

Free is not always free. That’s what Mark Sulkin discovered this year when he picked up a “free” bottle of water in his room at the DoubleTree hotel in Phoenix.

“But in the small print, it said ‘free’ only applied to Hilton Silver-, Gold- and Diamond-level guests — otherwise, it was $3,” says Sulkin, a nonprofit fundraiser from Glenview, Ill. “How petty.”

Perhaps. But it’s also becoming more common. The hotel industry likes to throw around the word “free,” but it turns out that its definition of “free” may not match yours.

And it’s a definition worth knowing.

The typical person thinks “free” means that something costs nothing. No strings attached. Hotel “free” is not the same thing. There’s “free” as long as you have the right color elite card. (Bottled water and use of the Internet, usually.) There are “free” amenities offered to guests (such as a welcome cocktail or a breakfast buffet). Those aren’t exactly free, either, since you’ve already paid for them. And there are things that look free but aren’t. (The minibar or the prominently displayed bottle of wine.) You need to know about all of these variations on “free” before you fall for any of them.

Let’s be clear: Almost nothing a hotel offers you is free.

The “free” items for elite guests, such as the water Sulkin found, are problematic. Hotels are taking a page from the airline playbook. They’ve taken away something that was once included in the price of your stay, such as a bottle of water or the ability to connect to the Internet, and then returned it only to their brand-loyal guests. Everyone else must pay.

Sulkin didn’t expect to get bottled water with his room, and it seemed like a “gotcha” move to him. The hotel promotes the water as “free,” but then qualifies that gift in the fine print. That kind of giveaway-that-isn’t may also be a not-so-subtle suggestion that you should join the hotel’s loyalty program. Such programs may benefit frequent guests, but for the rest of us, they’re a questionable proposition. (As a matter of fact, the members often pay dearly for that bottle of “free” water with their blind loyalty to the brand.)

Hotels aren’t the only ones offering “free” things. Small inns are, too. At the Captain’s House Inn on Cape Cod, guests receive a gift basket that includes “free” Kashi cranberry bars and locally made Cape Cod-brand potato chips. At the Grafton Inn, in Grafton, Vt., breakfast is “free,” as are the coffee and pastries served beforehand. And at the Manor on Golden Pond in Holderness, N.H., you’ll find “free” homemade cookies on your bed after dinner.

Large hotel chains are obsessed with the word “free.” All-inclusive resort hotels in the Caribbean are famous for their free breakfast buffets, which, true to the name, are included in the price of your visit. You can get a “free” breakfast of whole fresh fruit, cage-free eggs and all-natural bacon at participating Hyatt Place hotels (as long as you belong to the loyalty program). Hilton Hotels also offers “free” breakfasts — not just water — to its Honors program members. There they go again.

If you want to test this concept of free, try walking in off the street and asking for a free breakfast. You’ll be laughed out of the lobby.

“News flash,” says Peter Koch, who runs the personal finance blog “It isn’t free. You’ve paid for it. It was already in the price of your hotel room.”

Maybe the worst type of “free” item at the hotel is something that looks like it’s yours for the taking but isn’t. Bottled water is a profit machine for some hotels. Some resorts can charge as much as $10 a pop, and the price is disclosed only on a small tag next to the beverage.

I’ve stayed in hotels where the line between the minibar (which is definitely not free) and a welcome gift is blurred. And that’s a problem, especially if you’re traveling with kids, who will eat anything within grabbing distance.

Adults fall for it, too. When New York writer Morgan Mandriota checked into a boutique hotel in Los Angeles, she found “free” snacks, to which she helped herself. The next day, she found a $76 charge on her credit card for Pringles, cashews and peach rings, recalls Mandriota, who posted her experience on her Instagram account. So how did that happen? There were no prices on the snacks, so she assumed that they were included in her room.

But the absolute worst kind of “free” is the stuffed animal trick, which targets hotels’ youngest guests. According to Jill Fischbarg, a consultant at Ovation Travel Group in New York, some hotels place adorable plush animals on the bed during turndown service on guests’ final night there. They aren’t free, of course.

“If you’re traveling with a child, that toy will likely come home with you,” Fischbarg says.

Elliott is a consumer advocate, journalist and co-founder of the advocacy group Travelers United. Email him at

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