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Automated minibars charge hotel guests for snacks that were merely moved

Most hotel guests know it’s expensive to raid the minibar in the room. But many are unaware they can be billed for even touching the snack tray. That’s because many hotels now use an electronic sensor that charges them when items are moved.
Most hotel guests know it’s expensive to raid the minibar in the room. But many are unaware they can be billed for even touching the snack tray. That’s because many hotels now use an electronic sensor that charges them when items are moved.
Published Oct. 10, 2014

Most consumers know that if they drink anything from the minibar in their hotel room, they'll be charged. But did you know some hotels now automatically charge your bill if you as much as touch the snack tray — even if you don't eat anything?

Automated minibars with sensors and snack trays with built-in electronic scales are now common practice at hotels, including Hilton, InterContinental, DoubleTree and Sheraton. And a slew of complaints in hotel reviews online reveal consumers still get taken by surprise when they discover "incidental" charges on their bill for food they never consumed.

A manager at Milwaukee's Ambassador Hotel estimates that as many as 90 percent of automatic charges for the minibar turn out to be in error. There, a staff member manually checks the bar in each room and corrects any errors before the consumer is charged. But at other hotels, it's often up to guests to discover the false charges.

A reporter who visited a DoubleTree hotel in downtown Chicago at the end of August discovered six charges marked "minibar" on his bill. They ranged from $6.06 to $7.72 each. The reporter was puzzled because he and his family didn't eat anything from the tray and hadn't seen any signs warning that they'd be charged if items were removed or moved around.

When he inquired at the front desk about the unexpected charges, he was told the hotel automatically bills guests if an item is removed from the snack tray, even if the guest puts the item back. A hotel representative agreed to remove the charges.

A spokeswoman for DoubleTree by Hilton acknowledged that hotels in the chain have the option of installing sensors in their snack trays.

"A small number of our hotels have units that do use motion-sensor technology, and should include information on the menu card or unit stating the way in which the sensors work," the spokeswoman said in an email.

Amy Schneider, assistant general manager at the Ambassador Hotel in Milwaukee, said Ambassador implemented an automatic minibar as an amenity to high-end travelers during a renovation four or five years ago. Guests initially complained about automatic charges, but the hotel has since adopted a system in which an employee manually checks that items were actually consumed or opened before the guest's credit card is charged.

Schneider explained that, at times, guests open up bottles or containers, eat some of the contents and put the item back or tamper with the contents. People might also consume what's in the snack tray and replace it with an item from a convenience store. The automated system is meant to discourage guests from such behavior, but it doesn't necessarily make financial sense for hotels.

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