How to avoid hidden hotel fees on your next trip

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By Christopher Elliott

When it comes to hidden hotel fees, the sky’s the limit. Or, in Liz Pollock’s case, the fourth floor of her hotel.

Pollock recently checked out of the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Golf Resort Palm Springs Area in Cathedral City, Calif., and discovered a mysterious fee on her bill: a “top-floor” surcharge of $7 per night.

“I didn’t request a room on the fourth floor,” says Pollock, a manager for a clothing company in San Francisco. “And I didn’t find out about the fee until after I’d checked out.”

Here’s the thing about the top-floor rooms at the DoubleTree: They’re more or less the same as the rooms on the third floor, except that they “allow for the best view of the surrounding area,” according to Robert Hatfield, the hotel’s director of sales.

A “top-floor” charge? Why not? To squeeze a little more revenue from their guests, hotels are getting creative with their hidden fees. 

  • More hotels have renamed their dreaded mandatory resort fees “destination fees” to escape the stigma of resort fees. It’s not working — guests don’t like any mandatory fees. 
  • Resorts continue to stock their minibars with overpriced items and charge customers for just looking at them. OK, that’s a little bit of an exaggeration. They bill you the moment you touch them. Yep, the minibars have sensors.
  • Hotels have recently added all kinds of nuisance fees — for the convenience of paying in your native currency, for room service, and for having a concierge. Hotels are even are charging you extra so they can pay their workers a living wage. It’s called a “Hotel Worker Protection Ordinance Costs Surcharge.” (Oh, and if you think that’s bad, check out all the hidden airline fees.)

The only way to escape hidden hotel fees is to become just as creative about fighting them. I’ll show you how in a minute.

Yes, hidden hotel fees are getting worse

“Hidden hotel fees are taking advantage of consumers across the country,” says Bret Bonnet, co-founder of People for Honest Pricing, an organization that lobbies for fair pricing and certifies businesses that practice honest pricing. “While they’re definitely not a new phenomenon, they seem to be getting worse.”

For Pollock, who was in Cathedral City for just a few days, the “top-floor” fee was particularly annoying.

The DoubleTree had already billed her a mandatory $35-per-night resort fee, which covered on-site self-parking and Internet “even though Hilton Honors members are supposed to receive free Internet if they book through Hilton.” 

But it really topped itself with the top-floor charge. Hilton hadn’t warned her about the fee before the reservation and didn’t inform her about it until long after she’d left the property.

That’s not how it’s supposed to work, Hatfield says.

“A guest will receive a pre-arrival email with the upgrade options available to them and what the additional charge for those items are,” he explains. “Once the guest chooses the upgrade option, the resort is notified. Once we make the upgrades, the guest is then notified via email. This all happens before arrival.”

So what’s a “top-floor” hotel surcharge, then?

Pollock solved the mystery when she asked her husband about the charge.

“Apparently, sometime after the reservation was made, he went on the Hilton website and noticed there was an ‘upgrade’ option at the bottom of the page. He clicked ‘yes’ to upgrade to the fourth floor,” she says, without noticing that he would incur an additional charge. “He’s a huge golfer and wanted as big a view of the golf course as he could get.”

Sometimes, old travel fees hide under new names. For example, the $37-a-day resort fee is called a “daily destination fee” at the Le Meridien Delfina Santa Monica. (It was just $20 a day back in 2017, when I first wrote about hotel fees). In San Francisco, you’re more likely to find an “urban fee” or “facility fee” on your bill. It’s all the same thing — just don’t use the “R” word.

Michael McCall, a professor of hospitality business at Michigan State University, says travelers knew about the old hidden hotel fees, thanks to press accounts and word of mouth. The workaround: rename them. 

“The concept often works,” he says. (Related: Are hidden hotel fees about to check out?)

Here’s how to avoid hidden hotel fees

What’s the antidote to these hidden hotel fees? (Related: Outrageous! Hotels are charging for parking — whether you have a car or not.)

Well, first of all, you should assume you’ll get a creative surcharge the next time you stay in a hotel. 

Avoid the worst offenders

Orlando, Las Vegas and certain Caribbean islands have well-deserved reputations for charging outrageous fees (especially resort fees). You don’t have to avoid those places entirely. Just book a room outside the main touristy area, like Paradise or the area around Disneyworld, and you probably won’t have to pay the high fees.

Look at your reservation. Then look again.

The most ethical hotels include any mandatory fees as part of the room rate. The less ethical ones wait until the final screen — a practice called drip pricing — to tell you the all-in price. Either way, you should know exactly how much you’ll pay for your hotel before you check in. If you don’t, you have a compelling case for getting the fees removed.

File a credit card dispute

If you paid by credit card, you have a powerful tool for escaping an undisclosed junk fee. You can file a credit card chargeback and get the fee removed.

You might be able to skip the hidden hotel fees without complaining

If you’re a member of the hotel’s frequent-stayer program, you can often avoid the worst hotel fees, such as destination fees. If you’re part of a large group like a meeting, your corporate travel manager or meeting planner will often negotiate to have the worst fees removed. For example, you’ll be able to waive those annoying parking fees. (A traveler’s favorite Las Vegas resort introduced a $14-per-day mandatory resort fee.)

If you find a hidden hotel fee on your folio during your stay, don’t wait to fight it. Dispute it now. Here are a few strategies for ensuring your success.

If you can prove a hotel or airline failed to disclose a mandatory fee, you have a reasonably good case. I’ve seen credit cards side with consumers when they disputed the charges.

But perhaps the best way to avoid creative new fees is to never do business with a hotel that imposes them. (Related: The hotel industry’s new trend: ditching in-room minibars.)

If you encounter a problematic fee, tell everyone (or you can ask my consumer advocacy team for help). And if you see that a hotel charges a creative fee, avoid it.

If enough travelers do the same, these new junk fees may end up where they belong: in the trash.

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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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