Tamara Myers thought that her hotel bill at the Westgate Las Vegas Resort & Casino would come to $415. At least that’s what Otel.com, the website through which she booked the room, promised her.
But the site glossed over a small detail: a mandatory daily “resort fee” payable at checkout, which added $306 to the folio.
“I did my due diligence,” insists Myers, who lives in Indianapolis and works for the military. She’d made the reservation for her 88-year-old mother, who was caring for her brother in Las Vegas. “The fee was listed nowhere on Otel.com.”
Mandatory resort fees, tacked onto a hotel bill after an initial price quote — and sometimes even later, as with Myers — are on the rise again. A total of 1,026 domestic hotels charged a resort fee for the first half of 2017, a 14 percent increase from just six months ago, according to new research from Resortfeechecker.com, a site that allows travelers to look up resort fees at hotels worldwide. The average resort fee, which covers everything from “free” WiFi to access to exercise facilities, now stands at almost $21, a jump of 8.7 percent from last December.
The biggest increases came in large metropolitan cities, including New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles, where resort fees are up by a whopping 70 percent in six months. “Until recently, most hotels in these cities didn’t charge a fee,” says Randy Greencorn, publisher of Resortfeechecker.com.
No wonder, then, that frustration with resort fees is reaching a boiling point. They’re difficult to fight once they’ve been added to a bill. Government action on the fees, once thought to be inevitable, has stalled.
Resort fees are classic travel industry sleight-of-hand — you’re quoted one price, you pay another — yet for now they remain perfectly legal. How so? Hotels are only required to disclose the fee before the booking is made, but not when the initial price quote is made. The Westgate’s site warns that a resort fee of $29.95 plus tax a night “may” apply. A search for a weekly room rate in August shows a price of $781 for a standard “Signature” room. The next screen downplays the final room rate, which, after taxes and resort fees, comes to $1,192, a 53 percent increase. You have to click an arrow to get a price breakdown.
Otel.com shows an asterisk and refers to resort fees under “Hotel Information” on its booking page. “Some hotels do charge a resort fee which must be paid to the hotel directly,” it warns. “Otel.com is not responsible for resort fee charges and has no control over their implementation.”
A Westgate representative said that the hotel does not contract directly with Otel.com. “All of our direct booking partners and our corporate websites clearly mark the presence of our resort fee, consistent with nearly every other major resort in Las Vegas,” said Jeff Klein, a resort spokesman. Klein says it has contacted Otel.com and asked it to “make this right with the customer.” I did, too, but received no response.
That’s how it goes with most attempts to claw back a resort fee. Apparently, hotels and their intermediaries feel as if asterisks and hard-to-find disclosures are adequate, and they are interpreting the government’s silence on the matter as a tacit endorsement of their practices.
Only a few months ago, resort fees were headed for extinction. The Federal Trade Commission signaled that the fees as they are currently advertised by most hotels were “unfair and deceptive.” The agency was poised to announce a policy shift that would require resort fees to be included in the initial price quote, according to multiple sources.
But after the presidential election, the federal government cooled on further regulating the hotel industry. A national investigation of resort fees, led by the attorney general for the District with participation of 46 state attorneys general, is underway. In June, the D.C. attorney general sent a subpoena to Marriott, requiring it to produce documents related to its investigation into whether its practice of charging “undisclosed or poorly disclosed” resort fees violates the District’s consumer protection laws.
Marriott says it “fully” discloses resort fees to consumers before they complete their booking on any of its direct channels. “We have been cooperating with the District of Columbia’s request for information in accordance with their investigation into industry resort fee disclosure practices,” says John Wolf, a spokesman for Marriott.
But until a state, the FTC or a court declares these fees illegal, they’re bound to continue multiplying, industry observers say. It’s a source of frustration for travelers and embarrassment for tourism officials. I contacted representatives in the top three cities for resort fees — Orlando, Miami and Las Vegas — after the Resortfeechecker.com data was released. Officials in Orlando and Las Vegas declined to comment, and Miami did not respond.
There are a few quick fixes. The first is obvious: Review the fine print, especially if you’re booking through a third party. Discount hotel sites may intentionally conceal resort fees, or they may not have access to the most current resort fee information from the property. You owe it to yourself to check with the hotel before you make your reservation.
In some cases, resort fees can be avoided by joining hotel loyalty programs, Greencorn says. “Sign-up takes only a couple of minutes and can be done online. Before booking, travelers should check with their hotel directly to see if they provide this benefit to its members.”
These are only stopgap measures, but they should help you avoid unpleasant surprises until the long arm of the law catches up with hotels that charge resort fees. It’s only a matter of time.
Elliott is a consumer advocate, journalist and co-founder of the advocacy group Travelers United. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.