It’s time for these hotel fees to check out

When Michael Stolar tried to check into the Hilton Chicago O’Hare Airport at 11 a.m. on a recent morning, an employee cheerfully informed him his room was ready.

Really? At 11 a.m.?

Oh, yes. Even though the normal check-in time is 3 p.m., he could have his room now. As long as he paid a $25 “early check-in” fee.

“I declined to pay it,” he says. “I just left my bag with the bellman and went to my meeting at another hotel. I won’t be staying at any more Hiltons.”

Hilton doesn’t disclose its early check-in fees on the O’Hare property’s site. But it occasionally reveals them elsewhere. Here’s one Hilton property that charges guests $100 for departing early and $125 for leaving a little late.

Set your alarm clocks the next time you’re staying at a Hilton, my friends.

Check-in and check-out fees are an annoying little subset of junk fees that travelers like Stolar have to deal with. Hotels will rake in a record $2.25 billion in revenue from fees, 7 percent more than in 2013 and almost twice as much as a decade ago, according to an NYU study.

Since this is a feature called That’s Ridiculous, where I put the most absurd ideas in the travel industry in my crosshairs, let’s stay on this target for a little while.

Most of these fees are avoidable if you’re on time or have pledged your indentured servitude to Hilton as a “frequent” guest. (By way of full disclosure, I have one of those cards, and when I flash it, this all goes away. But I shouldn’t have to.)

A hotel insider would argue that there’s an extra cost to arriving early or staying late. Customers who push the boundaries of a normal stay can stretch a property’s housekeeping resources. A room that’s serviced in the morning might have to be reserviced later in the day. A late checkout may mean a room isn’t available for the next guest and can’t be put back into inventory until the following day.

The reality is somewhat different. Housekeepers don’t start servicing rooms at the designated check-out time. Most guest leave far earlier, according to hotel sources. And some do stay late. The ebb and flow of guests is built into a hotel staff’s daily routine. In other words, they know when you’re likely to show up and leave, thanks to their experience and the miracle of yield management technology.

If early check-ins and check-outs were in fact costing a hotel real money, it would either pass that cost along to the guest in the form of higher rates or more uniformly charge for early check-ins and check-outs.

The telltale sign — and the reason I say this is a junk fee — is that it’s readily waived for an elite-level customer. When I whip out my little Diamond card, Hilton isn’t giving me a benefit as much as they’re punishing me less because I’m a “loyal” customer. That’s not really fair to the garden-variety guest, is it?

Truth is, early check-in and check-out charges are ways to pad a hotel’s profits. Fortunately, you can avoid them by sticking to your schedule, like Stolar did, or by procuring one of those habit-forming cards by spending, spending, and more spending.

But these junk fees, particularly when they’re not disclosed before check-in, seem more like gotchas than legitimate charges. Can’t hotels come up with a more creative way to make money?

Are early check-in and check-out charges "junk" fees?

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