By PlanetFeedback.com staff
Lots of travelers these days are getting a rude wake-up call with their hotel bills: Unexpected charges for amenities they thought were free. Some are facing surchages just for having certain amenities available.
The mini bar costs you only if you use it, right? Not necessarily.
"This past New Year's, some friends and I were charged for the bar in our room that we didn't have a key to and never touched," said interior designer Erin Bennett. "The hotel automatically charged my credit card. It took three phone calls before I was refunded the $100 'bar' charge. I learned that the hotel automatically charges for the bar even though we didn't have the key!"
Professional meeting planner Rosemary Deitzer was once charged a business center fee for dropping off a Fed-X she addressed herself in an envelope she brought with her. She's also rung up hefty charges for accessing her long-distance carrier through a toll-free number.
"Sometimes they charge you for the toll-free call to use your long distance carrier," she says. "It's buyer beware."
Pricewaterhouse Coopers, an international consulting firm, has quantified the trend in its U.S. Lodging Industry Forecast. Hotels are turning more than a dozen services – formerly freebies – into profit centers, either by charging fees, increasing prices or adding new amenities. Among them: extended local call charges, amenities fees, parking charges, business center prices, mini-bar prices, early departure charges, and cancellation charges.
Many guests consider the nickel and diming an unfair practice. In some cases it is.
Deitzer's been charged bartender fees even when the hotel agreed to waive them. "When you question it, it's always someone else's mistake," she says.
Are hotels being sneaky?
In the wake of PWC's report, the buzz is that hotels are being "sneaky" about "hidden" charges. In reality, consumers' perceptions might not match changing hotel practices. Three factors contribute to the confusion:
· The way that hotel rooms are priced.
· Consumer expectations about what the basic room charge includes.
· Fancy new amenities that are driving costs up.
How hotel rooms are priced
Hotel rooms are priced to attract guests, but the price you are quoted does not necessarily reflect the cost of providing every amenity. If it did, room prices would be sky high and bookings would disappear. The trend is to quote basic rates and then charge incrementally for amenities after check-in. The hotel is supposed to tell guests up front what costs extra. But consumers aren't used to looking.
What consumers expect
American travelers are accustomed to freebies and amenities. The problem is, the custom is changing, but no one told the guests. Until recently, it was fairly safe to assume that a hotel room included a phone and TV, maid service and use of the hotel pool. Sending out dry cleaning or cracking open the mini bar, on the other hand, carried a fee.
But hotels have expanded the range of amenities. Today, personal hygiene products, hair dryers, mini bars, goodnight mints, cable television, pay-per-view movies, individual voice mail, fax service, workout facilities, and modems are commonplace. But the cost of offering them is catching up with the industry.
According to Bjorn Hanson, lodging specialist for PWC, hotels are looking to amenities to recoup losses from a drop in occupancy over the last few years.
No such thing as a "free" amenity
The free mint on your pillow started a sweet trend. But that trend costs a mint. Kathryn Potter, spokesperson for the American Hotel & Motel Association, notes that some large hotel chains spend $1 million a year on mints. If mints cost a million, imagine the expense of telecommunications lines.
Use of business amenities like phone and fax lines has skyrocketed. More people online in hotel rooms means more trunk lines added to hotel phone systems. These add dramatically to the hotel's costs.
"The 'business room' used to be one with a coffee maker and morning paper delivery," says Potter. "Fast forward 10 years and now you've got ergonomic chairs and data ports."
The AH&MA has published a list of unusual amenities including virtual check-in, disposable cameras, locally produced wine, books and pet-friendly services. Cell phones will become more common in hotels, and guests will be able to have calls routed to their personal lines and use caller ID, call forwarding, and speaker phones.
"The hotelier's business is renting rooms," says Potter. "Other amenities are not their core business and they usually have to outsource them." Outsourcing and capital improvements mean increasing cost of hotel amenities. "It's like the difference between shopping at 7-11 and Costco," says Potter. "You're paying for the convenience."
Some practical tips to avoid surprises:
· When you book a room, be clear about what's included. Amenities vary among hotels within the same price range. If you need a specific service, ask if it's provided and how much it will cost.
· When you check in, you're asked to initial your room rate and departure date. If you leave earlier, you may be charged an early departure fee, so make sure the date you agree to is correct.
· Ask about phone/online fees. Even if there's a data port in every room, there usually aren't enough phone lines for every guest. If someone is online for an hour and a half, or talking long distance via a toll-free access line, they're monopolizing a local phone line and local charges may kick in after a certain period.
· If there's a problem with your bill, speak to the manager on duty.
· Complain about unexpected charges and poor communication about hotel policies.
· Try to keep track of facilities and services that you use.