Are hotel resort fees on their way out the door?

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By Christopher Elliott

Even though the Doubletree San Juan isn’t really a resort, it still charged Cheryl Nygaard an 18% per night resort fee on her recent visit to Puerto Rico.

Even worse, the $15-a-night “service” charge, which included her Internet connection, beach chairs and towels, an in-room DVD player, and water and pool amenities, appeared on her bill at the end of her stay.

“I didn’t know about the fees until I checked out,” she says. Nygaard, a corporate trainer from Dallas, who had booked the room through her travel agent, inquired if they could waive the charge. She was in San Juan on business and didn’t use the pool, beach chairs or DVD player.

They said no.

No wonder. U.S. hotels collected an estimated $2.1 billion in resort fees in 2013, about double the amount from a decade ago. Customers hate these travel surcharges. They wish companies would just quote an honest rate that includes all required fees.

The growing disapproval of resort fees

Hilton apologized for Nygaard’s confusion, stating the company makes every effort to disclose all mandatory fees for hotels in its system.

But the truth is, the travel industry doesn’t care for these bait-and-switch practices, either.

Although individual hotels mount a spirited defense — last year, for example, Caesars slapped its guests with a resort fee, brazenly claiming they had asked for it — the rest of the industry is plotting to kill resort fees.

That may seem counterintuitive, but if you follow the money, it makes perfect sense. Neither travel agents nor hotel companies benefit from resort fees in a meaningful way.

Travel Leaders Group is transforming travel through its progressive approach toward each unique travel experience. Travel Leaders Group assists millions of travelers through its leisure, business and network travel operations under a variety of diversified divisions and brands, including All Aboard Travel, Andrew Harper Travel, Colletts Travel, Corporate Travel Services, CruCon Cruise Outlet, Cruise Specialists, Nexion, Protravel International, SinglesCruise.com, Travel Leaders Corporate, Travel Leaders Network and Tzell Travel Group, and its merger with ALTOUR. With more than 7,000 agency locations and 52,000 travel advisors, Travel Leaders Group ranks as one of the industry’s largest retail travel agency companies.

The battle over resort fees

Instead, hotel owners receive most of the $2.1 billion, while the intermediaries and management companies are bypassed and, in some cases, falsely blamed for the charges.

It’s a classic win-lose.

Plus, a little more than a year ago, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) sent warning letters to hotels and online travel agencies, suggesting that resort fees “might” be deceptive, which many saw as the first step toward a stronger enforcement action.

Resort fees could die quickly at the hands of the FTC. A single consent decree, which concludes resort fees are unfair and deceptive, would give large hotel companies the excuse to permanently end the practice, even over the objections of owners. The FTC would not comment on future actions. In a recent interview, Jessica Rich, director of the its Bureau of Consumer Protection, told me the agency would continue to work with the industry “to improve upfront disclosures” about such fees.

A call to end resort fees

Guests want more than disclosure, though. They want resort fees to check out permanently.

“The fees are ridiculous,” says Nygaard. “They’re a cash grab. The cost of the room should include using the hotel amenities.”

Guests like Nygaard believe they should have an upfront price for their room — the same “all-in” rate that airlines are now required to display.

At the time of Nygaard’s complaint, booking a room at the Doubletree in San Juan through Hilton.com meant waiting until the second booking screen to find out about its fees. (A traveler expected her hotel bill at the Westgate Las Vegas Resort & Casino to be $415, as assured by Otel.com.)

But the exact amount wasn’t revealed until you clicked on a “details” link, which appeared as a pop-up on the third reservations page. Until then, guests might have believed they were getting a lower rate.

Upfront disclosure of resort fees

“It’s totally wrong,” says Molly Forman, who works for a technology company in Dallas and recently booked a room at the Hilton Hawaiian Village Waikiki Beach Resort. She only learned about the property’s resort fee after her arrival, although it’s fair to note that this Hilton, being a real resort, more clearly discloses its $30-a-day fee online.

“If I had been aware of the rate earlier, or that it was not optional, I could have chosen a different property,” says Forman.

As a matter of policy, Hilton discloses its fees on the first page of its website. The company says they include all required surcharges in the total price quoted at the time of booking and in the email confirmation.

“We will follow up with the Doubletree in San Juan to ensure that their disclosures are consistent with our standards,” says Hilton spokeswoman Dasha Ross. (Here’s how to book the best hotel room at an affordable rate.)

The domino effect on travel surcharges

The demise of resort fees could be the first of several fee-dominoes to fall, leading to the eventual collapse of other deceptive surcharges in the travel industry.

Imagine booking an airline ticket that includes a confirmed seat, a boarding pass and the ability to check a bag, as all airline tickets should? Or a rental car that includes, well, everything?

Will the FTC — or a court or Congress — finally say what travelers have been thinking for more than a decade? Will it declare that mandatory surcharges, which aren’t revealed until the end of your stay, are deceptive?

What a win-win.

Should hotels be allowed to charge mandatory resort fees?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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