If you’ve ever found a bargain on a hotel only to discover a few clicks later that the property charged a nonnegotiable “resort fee,” you’re not alone. Last year, 744 properties in the United States added these fees to their guests’ final bills, an astonishing 25 percent increase from 2014.
That’s the bad news. The good news? The harder the hotel industry pushes these unwelcome fees on consumers, the closer the government comes to banning them.
A coalition of consumer advocates, including the National Consumers League and Travelers United, is ratcheting up pressure on lawmakers to eliminate these controversial surcharges, which cover features such as wireless Internet access and towels at the hotel gym.
744 properties in the United States charged resort fees in 2015
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The coalition’s latest target: state governments. Late last year, the organizations made their pitch to a group of state attorneys general. Resort fees, they say, deceive customers, angering them and putting honest competitors at a disadvantage.
Public sentiment is on their side, they say. A national poll of registered voters released in late 2015 found that 80 percent said hotels and resorts should be required to include mandatory resort fees in the daily room rate, which would allow customers to comparison shop before they book a room. More than 20 percent of respondents said that in the past year, they’d been charged a mandatory fee in addition to the room rate and tax.
The average resort fee is $17.30 per night, up about 5 percent from a year ago, according to ResortFeeChecker.com, a site that tracks resort fees. Fees at high-end hotels are growing the fastest. A year ago, only 90 hotels charged a resort fee of $30 or more. That number has mushroomed to 142 hotels. All told, U.S. hotel guests paid an estimated $2.7 billion in resort fees last year.
“It seems like everyone is jumping on the bandwagon,” says Randy Greencorn, ResortFeeChecker.com’s publisher.
Travelers are apoplectic.
I absolutely loathe [resort fees]. It’s like double paying.
Michelle Roberts, Atlanta travel agent
“I absolutely loathe them,” says Michelle Roberts, a travel agent from Atlanta. “It’s like double paying.”
Roberts, like other hotel guests, was so upset when she discovered a resort fee on her hotel bill that she balked at paying it — and the hotel removed it. But that was years ago, and the practice has become so common that fighting it is futile.
The problem with resort fees is that they are revealed so late in the booking process. At best, they’re disclosed after the initial rate quote but before you push the “buy” button. At worst, they’re revealed at checkout, when they’re added to your final bill.
“Resort fees make rooms appear less costly when being purchased and compared to other similar hotels online,” explains Glenn Haussman, editor in chief of the hotel trade publication Hotel Interactive. “Hotel revenue managers realize that all things being equal, people will pick the cheapest price without first mentally adding in that a specific hotel may tack on an extra $25 a night.”
Let’s say you have two hotels — one with rooms for $260 a night with no resort fee and the other with rooms at $245 a night with a required $20 per night resort fee. Guess which one will sell more rooms? That’s right, the one offering the lower initial price but with the higher overall rate.
Resort fees are non-commissionable — hotels don’t have to pay travel agents, including online agencies like Expedia or Hotels.com, a cut of the fee.
Some hotel managers admit that the temptation to add these fees is enormous, especially because they’re legal. As Jim Smith, innkeeper at the Wine Country Inn in St. Helena, California, explains, they add money to the room rates that is non-commissionable to online travel agents such as Expedia and Hotels.com. In other words, the hotels don’t have to pay them a cut of the fee. But, he adds, that doesn’t make them right.
“I certainly don’t like paying resort fees when I travel,” Smith says, “so why would I want to charge my guests these silly fees?”
Some bigger hotels also don’t see a future in resort fees. The new Four Seasons Resort Orlando, located in an epicenter of resort fees, decided not to charge them in order to set itself apart from the competition.
“Some guests might book at a resort with a lower nightly rate, only to realize at checkout that they’ve been charged a daily resort fee, a fee for their pool umbrella, plus the hourly fees for the kids’ club,” resort spokeswoman Dana Berry says. “When you add it all up, it would have been less or equal to staying at a Four Seasons, where they would have likely had a much better experience.”
There is a growing realization that resort fees, at least as they are now charged, are unfair and deceptive. They would not be tolerated in almost any other business, so why are hotels allowed to get away with them? Even some hotel employees know that their guests are on to them.
Consider what happened to Allan Jordan, a consultant and corporate traveler based in Roslyn, New York, who found an $89 rate at a casino hotel in Mount Pocono, Pennsylvania, but soon discovered that the rate didn’t include a $15 resort fee. He phoned the property to find out what the fee covered.
“It covers our free Internet, free in-room coffee and valet parking for the hotel guests,” a reservations agent answered.
“If you charge $15,” Jordan replied, “it isn’t free.”
That left the receptionist speechless.
Elliott is a consumer advocate, journalist and co-founder of the advocacy group Travelers United. Email him at email@example.com