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T+L Money | Jean Chatzky on Mysterious Hotel Charges

Q: My husband and I just returned from a week in the Southwest. We were having a great time until we went to check out of the hotel. Then we were shocked to find all sorts of charges on the bill that we didn't expect. What's going on?—Ruth Smith, Atlanta, Ga.

A: Ruth, you're not the only one getting a surprise at checkout these days. Hotels in the United States are now raking in close to $1.5 billion annually—a 17 percent increase from last year—from the fees they add to room rates alone, according to a 2005 study by PriceWaterhouseCoopers. "I've been charged five dollars for a receipt of a Federal Express envelope," says Peter Greenberg, travel editor for NBC's Today. "A friend just got charged for a room-to-room call within a hotel."

The problem seems to lie in the booking process. When you call to book a rental car or an airline ticket, you're told which taxes and fees you'll be charged. In the car rental industry, this happens by law. With airlines, it's standard practice. But in the case of hotels, the disclosure is often lacking. "The fact that they don't tell you about the ten dollar mandatory resort fee or the fifteen dollars a day for parking distorts your ability to compare prices," says Ed Perkins, of www.smartertravel.com. Keeping the following suggestions in mind the next time you book and stay in a hotel will help minimize sticker shock.

Know where the surprises are lurking Taxes, which can add 15 percent or more to your bill, are the biggest culprit. States and municipalities routinely boost hotel and rental car taxes, passing costs off on tourists rather than residents. According to research from the American Economics Group, cities with the highest tariffs include Knoxville (18 percent), Cincinnati (17.1 percent), Houston (17 percent), Orlando (16.6 percent), Washington, D.C. (15.9 percent), and New York (15.2 percent).

Amenities represent another potential snake pit. Look for resort fees, towel fees, bottled-water fees (even for those bottles lurking on tables as if they were a gift), gym fees, and mini-bar restocking fees (lately, I've avoided accepting the mini-bar key for this reason—okay, and to keep from diving into the M&M'S at midnight). Then there's technology. Watch for Internet usage fees (not just in your room but in common areas where wireless is active), fax sending and receiving fees, and a variety of phone charges.

Ask in advance to avoid surprises It's always smart—particularly if you book over the phone—to ask two very direct questions: "Including taxes and fees, what can I expect my total bill to run each night?" and "Are there any fees or charges you haven't told me about?" Then ask for the full name and employee number of the person helping you.

Ask again when you check in It may seem as if you're doubling back. You're not. Perkins notes, "Local hotel managers, even those who are part of chains, have a fair amount of flexibility in how they charge," and some add fees. Plus, it's better to fight your battles at check-in than at checkout.

Watch for service fees Check your room service tab to see if gratuities have been automatically included. If so, there's no need to tip again. Also, it's worth asking if you're being charged mandatory gratuities for bellmen and housekeeping before you tip these folks as well. You may still decide to give them something extra, but you can fine-tune the amount.

Look for hotels that promote low fees Hilton and Starwood have policies against resort fees. And Marriott recently announced it will tell you about all charges up front—during the booking process—to avoid surprises.

Finally, don't be afraid to complain If, during the course of your stay, you come across a fee that wasn't disclosed and seems unreasonable, approach the hotel manager and ask for it to be reduced or waived. Let management know that if they want your business the next time around, they'll let it slide this time.

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