A 10 percent hotel “service” fee? What’ll they think of next?

You’ll never guess what Peter DeForest found on his hotel bill in Bangkok.

I won’t keep you in suspense: It was a “hidden” 10 percent service charge.

For what?

The answer reveals a growing problem among travel companies: their inability to tell the truth about their prices. Also, it suggests our options for fighting these distortions are limited.

Here’s the somewhat anticlimactic explanation. Most restaurants and hotels in Thailand add a 10 percent service charge to your final bill. It’s supposed to take the place of a tip, and generally, it’s pooled with other gratuities at the end of the month and shared among employees.

It’s hardly the only place that has “mandatory” gratuities. Many cruise lines do the same thing. High-end luxury resorts do it too for “your convenience,” because who wants to stand there doling out dollar bills on vacation? Also, it ensures your tips are sufficiently generous.

DeForest’s problem — and mine, too — is that Marriott waited until the end to tell him about the fee.

“The original booking screen said ‘Total Taxes and Fees,'” he says. “The confirmation I received by email afterward showed taxes plus a 10 percent service charge.”

How tricky.

“That’s just crazy. And they’re so proud of it that they don’t even disclose it until after you have purchased it,” he says.

No, that sounds like a hidden fee to me. These junk surcharges are meant to make the room rate look cheaper than it actually is and a company that values ethics like Marriott has no business engaging in this kind of subterfuge.

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But this isn’t just a Marriott problem, and it isn’t a Thailand problem. It’s a travel problem. Companies, even those that know the difference between right and wrong, believe it’s acceptable to lie to their own customers by omission — to not tell them the final price of a hotel room until they’ve made a reservation or have passed the point of no return on a booking.

Some of you believe the solution is easy: Spend enough time studying the fine print and you can outsmart even the most truth-impaired travel company. That’s consumer empowerment.


But that kind of “do-your-due-diligence” approach to being a good consumer is unfair to the customer and lets the company off the hook. DeForest and others like him may not know the ins and outs of booking a hotel on Marriott.com, or elsewhere. They are not holding all the digital cards; the hotel is.

Such an approach to consumerism effectively gives companies a license to deceive their own customers and places the burden on us to discover their lies before it’s too late. And I think you all know which side I lean toward.

That’s right, I’m on your side.

This kind of nonsense must end, and only the big companies like Marriott, Hilton, American and Delta can stop it. Wouldn’t it be great if they all took a pledge to tell the truth, when it came to their prices?

Ah, I know. Dream on.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at chris@elliott.org. Read more of Christopher's articles here.

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