Until a few months ago, for instance, it was easy to cancel a room 24 hours in advance, sometimes even the same day. No longer. This summer Marriott International changed its cancellation policy at hotels in the United States, Canada, the Caribbean and Latin America, across almost all of its brands (MVW and Design Hotels are exceptions) to 48 hours before arrival. In some hotels, to avoid a penalty you must cancel 72 hours in advance. Hilton has moved to a stricter cancellation policy as well.
Automatic gratuities are also becoming more common, particularly at resorts and some urban hotels. These are gratuities for the staff that are added to your bill — though Professor Hanson said some travelers have reported being unaware of this as they handed a tip to the bellman.
There are even fees at some places for the in-room safe. Professor Hanson said it goes something like this: You check in and two days later you check out and there’s a $2 daily charge on your bill. “But I didn’t use the safe,” you say. The hotel’s response is that it’s a charge for the availability — not necessarily the use of — the safe.
It may also dawn on you that the $4.95 daily “minibar restocking fee” on your bill is in addition to the cost of whatever you take out of the minibar. The Snickers you had may cost $3, but if you factor in the restocking fee, that makes it a $7.95 candy bar.
Groups that book events at hotels are seeing new or higher charges for things like the set-up and breakdown of meeting rooms, as well as for bartenders and other staff.
Like airlines that rack up ancillary fee revenue by charging for every little thing, hotels are finding ways to get travelers to keep opening their wallets. Baggage holding fees, for example. Say you have an evening flight, but checkout is at noon. Some hotels will charge you a few dollars to store your bags until you’re ready to leave.
Now let’s say you arrive early. Hotels have typically let travelers into their room if it’s available. But today some places are charging extra. This is increasingly common in Las Vegas where some hotels allow you to pay for early access when booking. It seems to be working in Sin City, but Professor Hanson said it may not necessarily take off in other markets where many families would simply sprawl out in the lobby, with lots of luggage and perhaps a few bags of McDonald’s, and wait, he said.
Parking is another example. At suburban hotels where you used to park free, increasingly there’s gated parking for a charge.
One bright spot amid all these charges? High speed internet access fees have gone down or been made free for basic access or for loyalty members, primarily because travelers were so put off by them. “This one fee and surcharge gets more complaints than any other,” said Professor Hanson. Until now, the fee was always increasing.
The disclosure of fees has improved in recent years, yet the Federal Trade Commission says complaints about the fees and the way they hamper comparison shopping persist. When you initially search for a hotel room, the price shown is typically the room rate — without taxes and all those fees.
Additionally, the meaning of certain charges can be vague. A mandatory gratuity at some resorts, for instance, may be referred to as a “service charge,” and it may be a whopping 10 percent of the nightly rate each day. If you book through a third-party site, the charges can be even harder to spot.
So why not just include the fees in the room rate?
There are a number of reasons, though the only one that possibly benefits the consumer is that if fees were included in the nightly rate, they would be subjected to municipal occupancy taxes.
Unless all hotels are forced to display the room rate plus any mandatory charges, any hotel that chooses to do so is at a disadvantage. Previous research by Professor Hanson has shown that travelers pay close attention to room rates, and that a few dollar difference can shift market share.
So what can you do to avoid being surprised by fees?
Whether you book online or by phone, Professor Hanson said to confirm on the phone with the hotel what, if any, fees and surcharges will be added to your bill. Then ask for the agent’s identification number or name. This will help protect you from any unforeseen charges because you’ll be able to provide details about your conversation.
He added that it’s far easier to get a fee or surcharge waived in advance rather than complaining afterward. If you’re staying someplace for a week on business and don’t plan on using the amenities, he said you can request an accommodation on the fee when booking, or right after (as opposed to asking when you’re checking out, when charges would have to be reversed and a manager summoned).
Dozens of states attorneys general have been investigating resort fees and surcharges. In January, the Consumer Protection division of the Bureau of Economics of the Federal Trade Commission published an analysis of hotel resort fees that found that “separating mandatory resort fees from posted room rates without first disclosing the total price is likely to harm consumers by increasing the search costs and cognitive costs of finding and choosing hotel accommodations.”
But, for now at least, the burden is on the traveler to unearth fees and surcharges — and then factor them into (what’s left of) their vacation budget.