Uh-oh! Hotel resort fees are on the rise

Don’t look now, but those reviled mandatory resort fees are on the rise — and in places you might not expect.

Orlando is the surprise No. 1 destination for the surcharges, which can cover everything from the hotel gym to a Wi-Fi connection, according to ResortFeeChecker.com, a site that specializes in resort fee data.

A record 107 hotels in the world’s theme park capital charged an average of $11.57 a night in fees, over and above their room rates. Orlando is followed by Miami, where 100 hotels charged an average $20.04 per night in fees, and Las Vegas, where 93 hotels charged an average $20.06 per night.

“More hotels are charging resort fees this year,” says Randy Greencorn, ResortFeeChecker.com’s co-founder. A late 2014 survey by the American Hotel & Lodging Association echoes his findings. It noted that the number of hotels charging resort fees had more than doubled since 2012, rising from 3% of hotels to 7% last year.

Last time we checked on America’s resort fee pandemic, customers were complaining loudly, major hotel chains claimed they wanted to eliminate the fees, and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) was nipping at the heels of the hotels with strongly worded warning letters.

Resort fees aren’t always clearly disclosed at the time a hotel rate is quoted. That makes room rates look cheaper than they really are. After tacking on a mandatory fee, the price can balloon by anywhere from $15 to more than $100 a night.

So what happened? Many guests stopped griping, accepting the fees as inevitable. Hotels interpreted their silence as a license to not only continue charging the fees, but to raise them. Properties openly disclosed the unwanted extras on their websites. And the FTC waved a “mission accomplished” banner on the issue, saying it just wanted people to know about these surcharges.

Travelers seem less inclined than ever to dispute a resort fee on their bill. The latest guest surveys don’t even mention the mandatory surcharges, apparently because it’s such a non-issue.

Clint Arthur remembers how he recently discovered a $60-a-night resort fee at the St. Regis Bahia Beach Resort in Rio Grande, Puerto Rico. While fees aren’t as common on the island, the hotels that have them take no prisoners. Puerto Rico’s resort fees are the most expensive in the country. An average guest pays an extra $34.10 per night, according to ResortFeeChecker.com.

Arthur, who offers TV training seminars around the country, says the fee came as a shock, adding a total of $600 to his final bill. “And that’s on top of their already-high room rates,” he says. The St. Regis’ resort fee, which covers the use of its tennis courts, driving range, paddle boards and gym, is disclosed on its website one screen after you’ve selected a room during the booking process, driving the final quoted price up by $60 per night. But there’s hardly a mention of it anywhere else.

“Of course I paid the fee,” says Arthur.

When it comes to resort fees, the hotel industry rhetoric seems to have shifted. Instead of acting embarrassed by these surcharges, they are emboldened. Resort fees allow hotels to keep their room rates low, they offset expenses like in-room Wi-Fi and shuttle services, and they can “use resort fees as revenue drivers,” explains Katelyn Stuart, a spokeswoman for Paramount Hospitality Management, which operates three Orlando hotels. She says while some guests complain, it’s usually because they booked through a travel agent who failed to tell them about the “mere” $9 a day fee which, to be fair, is $2.57 below the Orlando average.

Greencorn warns that it’s becoming a free-for-all. Many hotels without resort-like amenities are adding surcharges to their rooms and then broadsiding guests with them when they check in. Part of the reason is that airlines have had so much success with separating a ticket from items like carry-on luggage or confirmed seat assignments, an act referred to as “unbundling.” Hotels feel it’s their right to do so, too, and they believe the government will let them.

Here’s why: In late 2012, the FTC warned 22 hotel operators that their online reservation sites might violate the law by offering a deceptively low estimate of their hotel room cost. But instead of eliminating resort fees, as some predicted, hotels simply improved their disclosure, with the government’s blessing. Hotels saw that as a green light to add more fees, as long as they told their customers.

Ironically, the resolution may come courtesy of the airline industry. The Department of Transportation (DOT) Advisory Committee on Aviation Consumer Protections, a four-person panel that advises the Secretary of Transportation primarily on airline issues, plans to review hotel resort fees at an upcoming meeting. That could set the wheels in motion for the DOT to require online travel agencies to quote a full price for a hotel up front. And that could finally kill resort fees for good.

Thanks, airlines.

Should hotels be allowed to charge mandatory resort fees?

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How to avoid resort fees

Stay away from “resort” areas. You’re likely to find these unwanted extras in popular resort areas in Arizona, Colorado, Florida and Hawaii (see list). Stay away from them if you want to avoid resort fees.

Book direct. A vast majority of hotels that charge resort fees will disclose the resort fee by the second or third booking screen when you buy directly online. Online travel agencies, and especially opaque sites like Priceline.com, may or may not tell you about the fee until later — if they do at all.

Read your confirmation. A reputable resort will reveal the fee on your final confirmation. If you’re not happy with it, you can always cancel.

Top 10 U.S. cities for resort fees

Orlando: 107 properties with fees; average fee $11.57

Miami: 100; $20.04

Las Vegas: 93; $20.06

Myrtle Beach, S.C.: 57; $8

Oahu, Hawaii: 37; $19.65

Steamboat Springs, Colo.: 32; $3.99

Puerto Rico: 30; $34.14

Phoenix: 27; $21.31

San Diego: 27; $16.91

Florida Keys: 26; $18.98

Source: Resortfeechecker.com

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