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Published: Sunday, 3/18/2007

Hotels are slipping in extra costs

BY CRISTINA ROUVALIS
BLOCK NEWS ALLIANCE

Some high-end hotels charge Internet fees, newspaper fees, resort fees.

But a water fee?

Travel expert Joe Brancatelli got slapped with one at a Puerto Rico hotel during a drought. It was only a couple of bucks a day, says Brancatelli, editor of JoeSentMe.com, a Web site for business travelers. But the point is, who can think of this stuff?

Or how about a golf-club transfer fee?

Ned and Terri Sokoloff of McCandless, Pa., were told it would cost $90 to transfer their clubs to the five-star resort in Mexico from a sister resort, where they had stored their clubs after playing.

This is beyond ridiculous, Mr. Sokoloff, president of a restaurant services firm, told the hotel management. Especially since they had put down $5,000 for six days at the all-inclusive resort in December. The resort told them it would have to hire a cab, instead of bringing them back on the shuttle bus that came to their hotel daily.

The fee was waived.

What s next? says Mrs. Sokoloff , a restaurant broker. A wipe-your-shoes fee?

The add-on fees that are spreading at high-end hotels and resorts are causing checkout sticker shock.

I am definitely seeing more crazy fees the past two years, says Laura Mc Kenzie, a TV travel expert who has a Web site called lauramckenzietv.com. The hotel industry made $2 billion in extra money from hotel charges because most people don t dispute them. They say, My company will pay for it.

Her vote for the craziest fee is the mini-bar restock fee. Never mind that she doesn t use the mini-bar. Some five-star hotels charge for someone merely to check the room to see if the mini-bar needs to be restocked.

A-just-in-case-you-need-more-overpriced-peanuts-fee, if you will.

Hotels began tacking on extra costs to recoup their costs after the hospitality industry took a big hit in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, says Joe McInerney, president and chief executive of the American Hotel and Lodging Association. Though the industry has rebounded, many of the fees have stayed.

Once some hotels began doing it, many others followed suit because they wanted their base prices to be competitive lest they lose business to the hotel down the street, says McInerney, who opposes hidden fees.

Brancatelli thinks hotels and rental car companies can get away with fees at the end of the stay because checkout is often a mad rush out the door.

The kids are whining, you are loaded down with luggage. You have to make your plane, Brancatelli says. Are you really going to fight over a $3 airport concession recovery fee, a fee that some airports impose on rental car companies.

They are guessing you won t.

Michael Matthews, a hotel consultant based in Tucson and a former executive with major hotel chains, also doesn t think there will be more backlash because business travelers pass it on to their employers.

The great days of wonderful hospitality are vanishing, I am afraid, says Matthews, formerly an executive with Ritz-Carlton Hong Kong, Regent International, and Rosewood Hotels and Resorts. What drives me nuts is parking fees. I paid $175 for a hotel room in Los Angeles and I paid $23 to park my car in a lot that is part of the hotel. Don t nickel-and-dime your guests. Tell them upfront.

The irony of hotel fees is that often a $70-a-night hotel throws in free Internet, free breakfast, free phone calls, and free pool, while a $300-a-night hotel tacks on fees for every little extra sometimes even that bottle of water on the counter, which you might have assumed was free. (Silly you. Consider it an $8 rehydration fee.)

Matthews, whose wife likes La Quinta because of the free breakfast and Internet, says there is more competition on the budget end of the business, so they can t tack on surcharges. But McInerney thinks there are only so many fees even a high-end traveler will tolerate.

I just think the customer is too sophisticated today to keep on adding on fees without telling him, he says. Someone has a great stay and all of the sudden there is another $150 on the bill. He says, I got ripped off. And now he is going to tell 100 people.

He says most of the major hotel chains have moved toward notifying customers of fees while they make reservations.

Kathy Shepherd, spokesman for Hilton, says the hotel chain makes every effort to warn people about fees in advance. Nobody is perfect. Sometimes they are not told things. But we make every single effort to do it.

The hotel chain charges a $9.95 Internet fee at its full-service brands such as Hilton and Doubletree, while brands such as Hampton Inn and Homewood Suites have free Internet.

Operating a full-service hotel is more expensive than running a focus one, she says. It is the industry standard. I know that is not the answer everyone wants to hear.

She says Hilton does not charge a resort fee except for at its five-star Waldorf-Astoria resorts in Maui, Hawaii; Palm Springs, Calif; and Phoenix.

Mc Kenzie advises travelers who are surprised by fees on their check-out bill to politely but firmly refute the fee.

When she stays at the concierge floor of luxury hotels and gets slapped with an Internet fee, she tells hotel employees: No, no, no, no. Other hotels don t charge me.

If I get mad enough, I will say I will disavow my entire stay on my credit card, and we can fight it off. That way you are working from a position of strength.

If a hotel doesn t waive the resort fee, they might knock $20 off the price of the hotel. It doesn t hurt to ask.

Some hotels also are moving toward automatic gratuities. She recommends making hotels spell out which tips the fee covers: Does this mean I am not supposed to tip the bellman? she advises asking. Spell it out for them, and they will hem and haw.

Jeff Maggs, director of account management for Blattner Brunner advertising agency in Pittsburgh, recently stayed at a hotel in Los Angeles, where he was charged a $5-per-day housekeeping tip a surprise at checkout after he had already tipped the housekeeper in his room.

It just seemed like someone was pulling one over me, Maggs says. I didn t dwell on it, but it all adds up. I have to be sensitive about it whether it is my money, the company s money, or the client s money.

Sometimes tipping rituals seem like a hidden fee.

Kay and Steve Vinay of Munhall, Pa., recently went to an all-inclusive Jamaican resort that advertises free golf on the cover page of its Web site. But a round of golf cost Mr. Vinay $50 after he paid a $15 caddy fee, the caddy tip, the shuttle driver tip, and the $15 drink cart stop.

You are expected to give the caddy a beverage, Mrs. Vinay said. If everyone else is buying a $7.50 Corona and they are buying their caddy one, you kinda look stupid.

Unbeknownst to the Vinays, if you go on the Web site and click on amenities and golf, you will see the caddy tipping fees. But Mrs. Vinay was upset she did not know about the tips, which she considered hidden fees.

The kicker is we only brought a little bit of cash. We got charged $3.15 to take money out of a MAC machine to replenish their cash.

Figuring out the real cost of a rental car also can be bewildering because of all the local taxes that finance stadiums and other municipal projects. Some rental car companies also charge a fee for drivers under 25, and Brancatelli s favorite, the airport recovery fee. Because we are at the airport, we can pass the charge onto you. You really have a hard time figuring out what is a hidden fee and what is just insane.

Terri Sokoloff, the restaurant broker, thinks all the surcharges put vacationers on edge.

You have to be on top of everything. You can t relax while on vacation. You need an accounting firm just to figure out your bill.

The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Cristina Rouvalis is a staff writer for the Post-Gazette.

Contact her at: crouvalis@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1572.



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