Nasty sur­prise on ho­tel bills

Hid­den fees can jack up the price with­out the cus­tomer us­ing any of the billed ser­vices or be­ing warned.

Los Angeles Times - - TRAVEL - By Josh Noel travel@latimes.com

I re­cently re­ceived a nasty lit­tle sur­prise onmy bill when check­ing out of a Mem­phis, Tenn., ho­tel.

Tucked in with the room charge and the var­i­ous taxes were a $20 “re­sort fee” and a $20 a night charge for “valet ser­vice.” Never mind that I hadn’t used the valet. Or that when I checked in, the front desk clerk didn’t hap­pen to men­tion I was be­ing charged for the ser­vice.

Re­sort fees are noth­ing new — and there’s a new web­site called Re­sort­FeeChecker.com to help you find out how much you’ll be charged — but they are in­creas­ingly com­mon and, ar­guably, cagier, with sur­charges such as an au­to­matic charge for valet ser­vice, re­gard­less of whether a guest uses it.

The Fed­eral Trade Com­mis­sion refers to this as “drip pric­ing,” the prac­tice of re­veal­ing prices as the buy­ing process pro­ceeds. The com­mis­sion sent a warn­ing let­ter to 22 ho­tels in Novem­ber 2012, not­ing that “one com­mon com­plaint con­sumers raised in­volved manda­tory fees ho­tels charge for ameni­ties such as news­pa­pers, use of on­site ex­er­cise or pool fa­cil­i­ties, or In­ter­net ac­cess, some­times re­ferred to as ‘re­sort fees.’ These manda­tory fees can be as high as $30 per night, a sum that could cer­tainly af­fect con­sumer pur­chas­ing de­ci­sions.”

Big Cy­press Lodge — which opened in April, along with a mas­sive Bass Pro Shops, in down­town Mem­phis in a huge pyra­mid that for­merly housed a bas­ket­ball arena— does dis­close the fee when book­ing online.

Af­ter se­lect­ing dates and a room, a trav­eler is given an es­ti­mated to­tal and told that the fig­ure in­cludes a $40-a-night re­sort fee. Hover the cur­sor over the words “re­sort fee ameni­ties” and an ex­pla­na­tion pops up of where that money is go­ing: valet park­ing, ac­cess to the fit­ness and busi­ness cen­ters, Wi-Fi, a bas­ket of snacks, a ride tothe pyra­mid’s ob­ser­va­tion deck and turn­down ser­vice.

I didn’t want valet park­ing, a bas­ket of snacks, ac­cess to the busi­ness cen­ter (which was still un­der con­struc­tion dur­ing my stay) or turn­down ser­vice. But I was charged for it. Add up the cost of what the ho­tel ac­tu­ally gives a guest for $40, andthe ledger clearly winds up fa­vor­ing Big Cy­press.

In a fol­low-up call, Lana McDon­ald, the ho­tel’s man­ager, tried to clear up a few things. Though the pyra­mid is sur­rounded by hun­dreds of park­ing spa­ces, valet park­ing, McDon­ald said, is manda­tory. (I self-parked in spa­ces about 20 yards from the front door but ap­par­ently should not have been al­lowed to do so.)

But that raised another ques­tion: Why would a mas­sive pyra­mid sur­rounded by so many park­ing spa­ces not al­low guests to self park? I told Big Cy­press rep­re­sen­ta­tives that it sounded like a not-so-sub­tle ef­fort to squeeze still more money from the cus­tomer; they called it “a con­ve­nience for our guests.”

Randy Green­corn, who launched the web­site Re­sort­FeeChecker.com last fall, sees re­sort fees pro­lif­er­at­ing.

“Anec­do­tally, they’re def­i­nitely go­ing up,” said Green­corn, who also op­er­ates HotelDeal­sRe­vealed.com. “In Las Ve­gas, pretty much ev­ery ho­tel charges a re­sort fee now. The preva­lence is go­ing up, but so is the amount that’s be­ing charged.”

Green­corn’s big­gest gripe with re­sort fees is when they’re of­ten not re­vealed un­til check­out; he cred­ited Big Cy­press with at least an­nounc­ing them when book­ing.

“If you’re a con­sumer and you know what you’re get­ting into, you can at least make the de­ci­sion,” he said.

As with most ev­ery­thing else in travel, wait­ing for the in­dus­try to right it­self will prob­a­bly be a long wait. It is there­fore in­cum­bent on the trav­eler to keep an eye out for charges that seem odd or ex­tra­ne­ous and to ad­vo­cate for one­self.

Af­ter spy­ing the valet fee, I re­spect­fully asked how I could be charged for a ser­vice I didn’t use and wasn’t aware of. The fine print was there for me to read on the web­site, and it was my re­spon­si­bil­ity to read it.

But I knew I wasn’t be­ing un­rea­son­able when the woman to my left, also check­ing out, over­heard the con­ver­sa­tion, looked over her bill and ex­pressed sim­i­lar sur­prise. The front­desk re­moved the charge from both of our bills.

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