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Dreaded hotel fees making a comeback

If those ever-climbing airline fees have you steamed, get ready for another summer travel bummer: Hotels are playing the same game.

Watch out for new charges, like the mini bar restocking fee. (Don't they make enough on the $4 chocolate bars?) And don't expect to get any slack on hotel policies, like trying to check out a day early without a penalty.

Hidden hotel fees have plagued travelers for years, long before airlines jumped on the bandwagon. The industry eased up last year during a historic decline in business and leisure travel. But with signs that customers are starting to return, hotels have ratcheted up the charges again.

Revenue from hotel fees and surcharges will jump 12 percent to $1.7 billion this year from 2009, said Bjorn Hanson, a clinical professor at New York University's Tisch Center for Hospitality, Tourism and Sports Management.

Hotels and airlines like the fees because they generate piles of cash at little extra cost. Another big plus: Fees don't show up in the room rate customers first see as they hunt for bargains on travel websites.

Of course, that bait-and-switch is what turns off consumers.

The fees are "extremely offensive," said Atef Mankarios, CEO of Trevi Luxury Hospitality Group in Dallas, which manages and advises high-end hotels. "There's got to be a price. You have to respect the customer and say (up front) what it costs."

A former CEO of St. Regis and Rosewood Hotels, he calls the add-on fees "my soapbox." Mankarios is still stunned by a Florida hotel — he won't say which one — that slapped a $35 resort fee on his bill for a stay that lasted from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. Forget about using the pool or golf course; there wasn't even a bellhop around to help with his bags.

Resort fees rank among the most hated add-on charges. Hotels say the fee covers amenities like parking, the fitness and business centers, spa access, tennis courts and in-room WiFi.

Not interested in using those services? Tough luck. They'll charge you anyway, typically from $15 to $20 a day, Hanson said. Even if hotels disclose the charge in advance, you probably won't find out until the website or reservations agent gives you a final price.

At least with an airline, customers get charged the same amount for a checked bag or reserved seat on any of its flights. Not at hotels. "You can stay one night on the East Side of (Manhattan), then stay at the same brand (hotel) on the West Side the next night and get charged different fees," Hanson said.

He advises travelers to be on the lookout for these new or rising charges:

Baggage hold fee ($1 per bag or $5 flat fee): Most hotels used to keep your luggage locked after you checked out for free. Now many make you pay, and you're still expected to tip the attendant.

Mini bar stocking ($2.95 to $5.95): Hotels tend to lose money on minibars, Hanson said, because they pay someone to check the inventory daily. The fee offsets their costs — and jacks up your bill.

Housekeeping surcharge ($12.50): Self-explanatory. I'd guess that like the baggage fee, this charge will cut into the tips of workers who really need them.

In-room Internet ($19.99): This usually pops up at high-end hotels, not budget properties. Why? Upscale places figure business travelers on expense accounts don't care.

Too often, travelers don't see the fine print about fees on the statement they sign at check-in. You can refuse to pay any surprise charges. But front desk clerks are more likely now to stand their ground, Hanson said.

Which might make the business that calls itself "the hospitality industry" as popular as, well, airlines.

Steve Huettel can be reached at huettel@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3384.

Dreaded hotel fees making a comeback 05/11/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 11, 2010 8:27pm]
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