Is Your Hotel Ripping You Off?

Hotels woo travelers with one hand and slap them down with the other, partnering seemingly wonderful Internet Only Rates! and Special Deals! with wallet-draining hidden fees and surcharges. Factor in the dreamy descriptions of rooms that don’t quite dovetail with reality — along with the occasional bit of outright misrepresentation — and a much-anticipated vacation can quickly become an exercise in aggravation. But fret not, you can beat hotels at their own game. Here’s how to detect and thwart the most popular scams that some hotels attempt to foist on guests.

Deceptive Advertising
The room was billed as an oceanview super duper deluxe guest room, but the reality is that you can just manage to catch a glimpse of the ocean from your balcony, and only if you’re standing on a chair. There’s nothing especially deluxe about the room either, besides the price.

There is no industry standard for any of the terms a hotel may use to describe its property. “Ocean Front” normally means directly facing the water and close to the beach, but in some locations, all ocean-front properties are set back from the beach or may be across the street. Be that as it may, you’re probably paying extra for that bit of “ocean front.”

To avoid this sort of misrepresentation, ask for specifics when you book the room, like where is the beach in relation to your room, and is there an unobstructed view? Ask what, in terms of blocks or miles, is meant by a “short stroll.” If it’s a special occasion and you want a terrific room, call the hotel directly and let the reservationist know you’ll be celebrating a birthday or honeymoon and ask which rooms are his or her favorite.

Faux Hotels
This one raises deceptive advertising to a whole new level. Some travelers have recently discovered that the hotel room they booked online is actually a shabby apartment in a not-terrific residential building. This problem seems to be particularly prevalent in New York City, where State Senator Liz Krueger and City Council member Gale Brewer are fighting the practice of landlords illegally renting apartments as hotel rooms. But some apartment buildings are zoned for hotel use, so the practice may continue. And since successful scams tend to spread, travelers in other big cities should be wary of being duped.

Be wary when renting lodgings described as apartment efficiencies, long-term stay hotels, and residence hotels. Unless the hotel is part of a recognized chain, that should be a red flag warning you to stay away. Check your guidebook, online forums, and travel websites for reviews of hotels before booking.

Hidden Fees
Imagine going to a restaurant and being informed that a mandatory charge for appetizers and desserts will be added to your bill, whether you choose to order these courses or not. Many hotels now do something similar by adding extra charges, disguising them as “resort fees” or “facilities fees,” to guest bills. Whatever they’re called, these fees can add an extra $10-$20 dollars per day, and sometimes per person, to your final bill.

There isn’t much travelers can do to avoid these fees, but you can take steps to avoid being blindsided at check out. Read the fine print on a hotel’s website (check the “Terms and Conditions” section), or ask the reservationist when you book if the rate includes any compulsory surcharges. Carefully read any emails you may receive from the hotel before your trip. If extra charges aren’t disclosed by any of these sources, you may be able to remove them from your bill.

Hotel Minibars
Home to the $6 soda and the $15 jar of stale nuts, minibars are shunned as budget breakers by many travelers. But sometimes, after a long day, that bag of cookies can start calling your name pretty loudly.

The best solution to fending off a pricey snack attack is asking the hotel to clear out the minibar before you arrive. Fill it with your own drinks and snacks, purchased elsewhere. Or empty the minibar yourself, but make sure to tell the front desk what you did, or you may be charged for the contents (some minibars sport computerized sensors that transmit a charge to your bill when you remove any item from the bar for more than 30 seconds or so). Happily, hotels are beginning to see minibars as financial drains, as the cost of staff time to restock the bars isn’t justified by the profits.

Phone Charges
Have you ever made a long-distance call from a hotel room phone? Probably not — some lodgings tag on surcharges that can amount to 100% of the toll charges onto each call. Hotels see telecommunications services as money generators, knowing that most people won’t use an in-room hotel phone unless they really have to, and if people really need something they’ll deal with an overpriced service.

Avoid this blatant rip-off by bringing your mobile phone or buying a pre-paid phone card, in case your mobile’s reception is lousy or your calling plan’s long-distance charges are too pricey. If you use a calling card, you’ll pay only for a local call, though some hotels do charge an “access fee” of a dollar or two for dialing 800 numbers.

If you travel with a laptop, look into voice over IP calling plans, like the one offered by Skype, which allow you to make local and long-distance calls for free with your computer. Or see if the hotel has a preferred or frequent guest program that includes flat fees for local and long-distance calls. Wyndham, Starwood, and Best Western all offer discounted or flat in-room phone rates to members of their preferred guest programs.

Wireless Internet Access
Why is it that budget hotels, like Hampton Inns, offer free high-speed Internet access to their guests while luxury hotels happily bill guests $10 or $20 a night (and up to $30 internationally) for the same service? It all comes down to what the market (and the expense account) will bear.

There really is no (ethical) way around the Internet toll, beyond choosing a hotel that offers free high-speed access. If you want or need to stay in a particular hotel that charges for Internet access, check to see if there are local hotspots offering free access near your hotel of choice. If a free hotspot is close enough, you may even be able to access it from your hotel room or the lobby — it’s worth a try. And if you’re traveling with a group, ask for a reduced rate on Internet access fees.

Michelle Delio

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