It’s time to ban the hotel minibar once and for all

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By Christopher Elliott

If shelling out $10 for a small bag of M&Ms makes you feel a little scammed, then you’ll love the hotel industry’s latest trend: closing its in-room minibars.

Those tiny refrigerators, armed with sensors that seem to detect when you gaze longingly at the overpriced Pringles or chilled Diet Cokes, are doing a disappearing act. It’s about time.

During the latest round of hotel renovations, these so-called guest “conveniences” are reportedly being unplugged and unceremoniously wheeled away at a growing number of hotels. For example, when the Hilton Riverside in New Orleans upgraded its guest rooms last year, the minibars were shown the door and replaced by regular refrigerators. Some Hyatt properties, including the Hyatt Regency Scottsdale Resort and Spa at Gainey Ranch, did away with theirs years ago.

A move to eliminate unwanted fees in hotels

But did they go far enough? Simply carting away these money traps, one by one, won’t work.

What can be removed today can make an unwanted comeback tomorrow. No, they need to be banned, if not by company policy, then by law.

Minibars represent everything that’s wrong with full-service hotels, according to many disenchanted guests.

“Hate them,” says Gene Plantz, a computer consultant from Hoffman Estates, Ill. “If you even look at the mini-fridge the wrong way, you get a bill for $100.”

Maximize minibar revenues

It isn’t only the steep markups — $7 for a bottle of water that should cost only $1 — that bothers guests. It’s the lengths to which some resorts will go to collect minibar revenues.

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David Eccleston, a retired programmer from Fort Lauderdale, remembers checking into a hotel in Hong Kong several years ago.

“I saw the high price of a Coke in the minibar, so I didn’t take it,” he recalls. He bought a soda from an outside vending machine, and when he was done with it, he left the empty can in the trash inside his room.

“When I checked out, I discovered they had charged me for the Coke,” he says. After he explained the mistake, and noted that the beverage was still in the minibar, the hotel reversed his charge. (Here’s how to avoid hidden hotel fees on your next trip.)

Bill shocks and hotel discontent

Of course, there’s also the shock of the bill. Joan Wallace is a retirement planning consultant from Boise. She says even if she doesn’t flinch at the price of a $20 beverage, her employer does. “They don’t appreciate those types of expenses on my account,” she says. She prefers to empty the minibar of overpriced items and use it for items she buys at a grocery store.

Alas, that doesn’t always work. Some hotels will charge you for the privilege of emptying and then restocking the minibar, or for having a refrigerator delivered to your room.

It may surprise you to learn that most hotels don’t like minibars, either. The ones getting rid of these so-called “amenities” say they’re too much trouble and don’t make enough money, despite the astronomically high markups.

Challenges and costs

“Of the hundreds of hotels with minibars to which I have served as a consultant, not one achieved a profit from the minibar service,” says Bjorn Hanson. He is a dean of New York University’s Tisch Center hospitality program. He supports canning them. In addition to being a seemingly endless source of guest complaints, the expense of the snacks and beverages and the hassle of restocking them represent a drain on profits. (Here’s how to find the best hotel at the most affordable rate.)

What’s more, the high-tech minibars don’t always work.

“Even with the sensor, there are items consumed, but not paid for,” Hanson says. “For example, if bottles are stored on their sides, some dishonest guests will remove the top from the bottle without removing the bottle from the unit and allow the contents to pour into a glass, so the sensor will not detect that the item has been consumed.”

Wouldn’t it be great if a full-service hotel chain bravely stepped forward and said, “We’re done with minibars”?

Time for government intervention

If not, perhaps it’s time for the government to step in and encourage the hotel industry to do the right thing, if not because it’s good for customers’ wallets, then for their health. Despite a move by some hotels to add healthier options, most still stock junk food.

Some municipalities already have de facto bans on minibars. They restrict the sale of spirits, which kills any hope of a minibar turning a profit. Or we could always follow New Zealand’s example, which may effectively ban minibars when new liquor laws kick in this December.

Despite the disappearance of some minibars, many resorts continue to market these snack traps as a “convenience.” But they’re no more a convenience than cigarette vending machines. Thanks to strict federal laws, are now all but extinct. No two ways about it — these money-sucking iceboxes aren’t just bad for hotels, they’re bad for you.

Can you think of any better reason to get rid of them once and for all?

Should hotel minibars be banned?

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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. He is based in São Paulo.

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