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4 Ways to Avoid Hidden Hotel Fees
Experts share their top tips for dodging pricey hotel surcharges.
Joining a loyalty program and doing your research ahead of time can make checking out of your hotel a less frightening experience.(Getty Images)
It's probably happened to you at least a few times while traveling. Upon checking out of your hotel room, you realize the bill suddenly ballooned thanks to a series of surprising surcharges. These expenses can range from a minibar restocking fee to the much-maligned resort fee, which covers guests' use of amenities like the pool and gym as well as Wi-Fi connectivity. Not only do these fees make it more difficult for consumers to anticipate the true cost of a hotel stay, but they're also getting harder to avoid. In an August 2015 trend analysis report, Bjorn Hanson, a clinical professor with the New York University Preston Robert Tisch Center for Hospitality and Tourism, forecasted that the total fees and surcharges collected by U.S. hotels would total $2.47 billion in 2015. That's up from the $2.35 billion the industry earned in 2014.
According to Hanson, these fees have actually been around since 1997, when U.S. hotel brands with properties in the Caribbean started extracting the cost of certain resort amenities, such as beach towels and bottled water, from the advertised room rate (similar to what the airline industry did in 2008 when it started charging for checked baggage). Since then, U.S. lodging industry fees have increased annually, except in 2001 and 2008 when lodging demand briefly waned. And despite customer complaints and warning letters issued by the Federal Trade Commission's Division of Advertising Practices in 2012, which investigated resort fee transparency specifically, Hanson doesn't think these extra charges are going anywhere anytime soon. And neither does Randy Greencorn, co-founder of ResortFeeChecker.com, an online tool that allows users to look up resort fees at more than 2,000 properties around the world. "In the last year, we saw the number of hotels charging a mandatory resort fee grow by 25 percent throughout the Unites States," Greencorn says. "This will only get worse," he adds.
Though it's getting more and more difficult to sidestep mandatory fees imposed by the lodging industry, there are still actions you can take to avoid an unwelcome surprise on your bill.
Pay Attention When Booking
This is especially important if you're reserving a room in a resort area, such as Las Vegas, Miami or the Caribbean, because these regions tend to impose some of the highest resort fees, according to Greencorn's research. If you can, try booking directly on the hotel's website or by phone with one of its representatives. According to Hanson, hotel websites have improved their transparency when it comes to disclosing ancillary fees to customers, making a note of any extra fees by the second or third booking screen. Though the fees probably won't be bundled with the advertised room rate, they'll likely be noted in a drop-down menu or a price breakdown before you're asked to confirm your reservation.
If you book with a third-party site like Priceline or Orbitz, you may find that notifications about surcharges can be a little more opaque in the phrase "extra charges may apply." Prefer to use a third-party site? Before you confirm your reservation online, call the hotel directly to inquire about any extra fees. Hanson says that, in his experience, getting in touch with the hotel directly usually clears up any confusion about the existence of mandatory expenses. If the hotel representative you speak with confirms there are no additional fees, Hanson recommends you record that person's name and employee ID number for reference in case you show up at the hotel only to find you were misinformed.
Join a Loyalty Program
Sometimes, dodging fees is as easy as signing up for a brand's loyalty program. In programs like Kimpton Karma Rewards, IHG Rewards Club and Starwood Preferred Guest, loyalty members – even non-elite customers – score free Wi-Fi access just for signing up (and in the case of Starwood, reserving their stay directly through a Starwood website). Even if you're not a frequent guest with a particular brand and don't intend to pursue elite status, joining a loyalty program could save you as much as $10 to $20 a day in Wi-Fi fees. And if you do have elite status with a rewards program, you can use that as a bargaining chip when contesting fees. "Even for elite members, fees being waived is not automatic, but explaining to the hotel that you're an elite member often helps to get the fee waived," Greencorn says.
But you don't necessarily have to hold elite status to circumvent resort fees. Sometimes just booking your stay with points is enough. "Hilton and Hyatt generally do not charge resort fees for rooms booked with points, and Starwood's SPG program will often waive the fee when asked," Greencorn says.
Do Your Research
While it's in your best interest to study the hotel's website to find out more about its ancillary and elective fees, there is an easier way to do your research: scour social media. "The rise of social media is increasing visibility for consumers," Hanson says. "It's a self-policing medium." In other words, if a fellow traveler is forced to pay an extra fee, you'll hear about it on travel review sites like TripAdvisor. You're probably already scanning guest reviews to see what visitors had to say about the service or the quality of the room, so any complaints about extra fees will likely be called out, too. However, your research shouldn't stop once you get to the hotel.
Hanson recommends taking a thorough look around your hotel room to see if the property highlights any fees you're vulnerable to incur. That information will probably be printed on tented cards on the desk or nightstand, or in the guest binder.
As hotel surcharges have become more and more common, consumers' ability to get out of paying them has weakened. "Hotel guests are somewhat complacent," Greencorn says. "When a guest arrives at a resort, the last thing they want to do is get into an argument with the hotel manager. Guests are eager to check in and begin their vacation, so they usually just pay it." This begrudging acceptance – coupled with the fact that hotels are becoming more upfront about extra fees and train their employees to respond to customer complaints – makes it that much more challenging to argue your way out of paying an ancillary fee. But that doesn't mean you can't reason with the property's manager. "I once stayed at a hotel that had a $25 per night fee, but I was arriving late and leaving early. After I explained to the manager that I just needed a room for the night, the fee was waived," he says.
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