There's nothing new about outlandish hotel surcharges. The October 6, 1904, edition of The Daily Star in Fredericksburg, VA, published a list of unscrupulous lodging fees, mainly in Europe, that included fees for towels, nightshirts, heat, hot water, horse stabling (whether the guest brought a horse or not), and, in one hotel, a one-penny fee for each ascent and descent in the hotel elevator.
My own distaste for hotel surcharges began years ago on my first business trip, when I ate an entire jar of what appeared to be complimentary macadamia nuts. At checkout I discovered the snack had cost me $12 (not to mention an upset stomach). If anything, the add-ons since then have gotten worse for guests, but much more profitable for the hotels. The lodging industry stands to earn more than $1.75 billion this year in surcharges alone, which means extra fees are likely to be with us for years to come.
The inflated cost of some surcharges raises the ire of many guests: $5 to have a package delivered to your room, $20 for Internet connection, $30 or more for mandatory valet parking. But more important than the dollar amount is whether the fee was made clear to you at check-in. "The recent trend for hotel surcharges is disclosure," says Robert Mandelbaum, director of research information services for PKF Hospitality Research. "More and more often you will see tent cards telling you what costs extra in your room. And that's fair. But there are some horror stories of surcharges, like towel fees, mini-bar restocking fees, and housekeeping fees."
Other surcharge surprises include additional fees to pay with a credit card, a charge of $1–$3 for the in-room safe (whether you use it or not), and even a fee to use the in-room coffeemaker. "Resort fees" of $25 a day or more are commonplace. And some hotels, especially in the Caribbean, are still tacking on energy surcharges—despite the absence of an energy crisis. The list is as long as it is upsetting.
Don't expect relief any time soon, if ever. According to PKF Hospitality Research, 2010 will still be a very soft year for the lodging industry. Revenues probably won't return to pre-recession levels until at least 2012. For now, hotels need to keep their rates low to be competitive, but they also need to add on as many surcharges as possible to be profitable.
Remember the old newspaper article, above? Another hotel charge it listed was for "table decorations" at hotels in Corsica. "Anyone who wishes to avoid this exaction," said the writer, "should instruct the head waiter to put no flowers on his table." At least that's one surcharge modern-day hotel guests don't have to worry about. Yet.
In the meantime, here are some tips on sidestepping surcharge surprises:
- Be proactive. Ask when you book if there are any mandatory fees (and taxes) that will be added to your bill. Seasoned travelers know to look for these charges before they book and to complain about them in advance.
- Check your bill carefully before you sign it. It's easier to dispute a charge at checkout than afterward.
- Calmly object if you think a fee is unfair or was not disclosed in advance. Desk clerks often have the authority to remove them.
- If not, ask for the manager.
- Forget it—until the next time you book a hotel. Then go somewhere that charges guests fairly.