Niagara Gazette

June 19, 2008

LIFESTYLE: Guests get fed up as hotel fees pile up


It’s the little - and not so little - hotel fees that drive frequent traveler Michael Sommer up a wall.

Sommer says he has been charged hundreds of dollars this year in handling fees on Federal Express packages that he sent or received. He also was charged for a toll-free call from his room at a Marriott hotel to the hotel company’s reservations number, and he was assessed a handling fee, as well as a cleaning charge, when he had a shirt laundered.

“Hotel chains are nickel-and-diming people to death,” says Sommer, a technology consultant in Jacksonville, Fla., who spent more than 230 nights in hotels last year. It’s particularly annoying, he says, that hotels in the same chain have different policies and don’t waive fees for their best customers.

Many business travelers agree with Sommer, and some say that hotels set high prices because they know it’s a hassle for guests to find outside vendors for such services. “Hotels, to a significant degree, hold their guests hostage,” says frequent traveler Peter Roberts, who works in the banking industry and lives year-round in hotels.

Joe McInerney, president of the American Hotel & Lodging Association, disagrees.

“Hotel guests can find out about these charges when making a reservation and choose where they want to stay,” he says. “They can stay at a hotel that provides these services or go to an outside vendor.”

McInerney says hotel fees for incidental services represent a “minuscule” amount of total revenue.

In 2007, revenue from sources other than room rental and food and beverage sales in restaurants, lounges and banquet space was less than 6 percent of total hotel revenue, according to PKF Hospitality Research. The sources were, among others, retail shops, golf, spa, in-room movies, parking, commercial leases, laundry, telephones, mail handling and bag storage.

A PKF Hospitality survey of 6,000 hotels found that, for each hotel room occupied last year, the average revenue was $141.72 for room rental, $53.16 for food and drinks, and $12.34 for other expenses. Hotel chains say they allow individual hotels to decide whether to charge a fee, and many hotels are simply passing their costs for a service onto guests.

But the problem may not be as pervasive as travelers think. USA TODAY selected 20 U.S. hotels and requested their charges for handling packages, toll-free calls and laundering clothes - some of the most common services needed by frequent business travelers.

Most do not charge for toll-free phone calls or for sending or receiving a package. Policies - and laundry charges - vary at hotels within the same chain.

At the Atlanta Marriott Downtown, it costs $4 to receive an overnight letter from a courier company and $11 to receive a package up to 25 pounds. A 51-pound package has a $45 handling fee.

At the San Diego Marriott Mission Valley there is no charge to receive a package, but it costs $10 to send a package, or $25 for a package over 49 pounds. At the Chicago Marriott O’Hare, there is no charge to send or receive a package.

Marriott spokesman John Wolf says Marriotts “generally do not charge” for toll-free calls, but the company “allows hotels to charge if the market they operate in also charges.” The company lets individual hotels decide whether to charge for handling packages, but, “We strongly encourage them to use discretion.”

Holiday Inn does not allow its hotels to charge for toll-free phone calls, says spokesman Brad Minor.

Wyndham says none of its hotels are permitted to charge for toll-free or credit card calls. However, the Wyndham Miami charges 95 cents for a toll-free call, but the hotel doesn’t profit from it. It is passing on an access charge of the local phone company, says Wyndham Worldwide spokeswoman Evy Apostolatos.

Hyatt’s policy for its North American hotels “is to charge for in-room access for toll-free calls,” says Vice President Katie Meyer. “The actual charge may vary for a number of reasons, including different state mandates on access fees and competitive landscape of a market.”

Many travelers find in-room phone charges easy to avoid, mainly by sticking to their unlimited-use cell phone plans. But laundry charges may be more tough to dodge, particularly if a trip needs to be extended.

“Some hotels are literally taking their customers to the cleaners,” Sommer says. While Sommer says he usually packs enough clothes, he’s sometimes needed laundry service when extending a business trip or soiling clothing. He estimates that he spent less than $100 on hotel laundry last year.

USA TODAY’s 20-hotel survey found some of the cheapest rates - $2 for a man’s shirt and $11.50 for a suit - at the Radisson Gateway Seattle-Tacoma Airport. The Radisson Boston and the Wyndham San Jose in California have the lowest rate for cleaning a skirt - $6.95. The New York Waldorf-Astoria has the highest rates for laundry: $17 for a shirt, $32 for a suit and $20 for a skirt. It’s $10 extra for a pleated skirt. Laundry charges vary at Wyndham, because laundry at most hotels is done by outside companies that charge different rates in different cities, Apostolatos says.

Customers can try to argue their way out of the fees. “Hotel incidental charges are something I fight,” says Mike Bach, a consultant in Livingston, Texas. Some hotel chains will waive the fees for elite members of their frequent-stay programs, he says.

That’s something that Hyatt is considering, Meyer says. It’s doing “very intensive research” to “determine what combination of features and benefits is of greatest value to our high-frequency travelers,” she says - including studying whether certain fees should be waived for Hyatt’s most frequent guests.

Sommer, who stayed at a Marriott hotel 214 nights last year, says that a hotel chain’s most frequent guests should be charged nothing for handling packages or making toll-free calls.

“If there has to be a charge,” Sommer says, “don’t charge your bread-and-butter customers.”