There’s no smoke in my hotel room, so what’s this $250 charge?

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By Christopher Elliott

When Samantha Armstrong sees a $250 charge on her hotel bill, she’s told it’s because she smoked in her room. Just one small problem: Armstrong doesn’t smoke.

Question

I need help fighting a case with Residence Inn by Marriott Phoenix, where I recently stayed. When I checked out, I saw a $250 charge on my credit card in addition to the $89 for the room.

No one ever said anything about the charge. I called the front desk and they said it was a “smoking charge.” But I don’t smoke.

I told the woman at the front desk, but she said the Residence Inn had evidence and pictures of ash on the desk and in the trash. They said I could dispute the charges with my bank but there’s nothing they could do for me and they refused to transfer me to a manager.

I left a message for the manager but never received a call back. I feel like Residence Inn is trying to make some extra money from me. Can you help? — Samantha Armstrong, Glendale, Ariz.

Answer

If you don’t smoke, you shouldn’t have to pay a cleaning fee. But hotels don’t necessarily see it that way. As far as they’re concerned, if anyone lit up in the room, and they see evidence of it, then the person who is responsible for the bill should pay the $250 fee. And that would have been you.

Is that fair? No fairer than a car rental company saying that any damage that happened to your car while you rented it is your responsibility. But it’s not a perfect comparison. After all, a hotel is a more controlled environment. If you were the sole guest in room for one night, and you don’t smoke, then maybe someone else smoked in your room.

Don’t laugh. I remember bumping into a housekeeper at a hotel as I checked out. She was puffing away on a cigarette. If that property had a no-smoking policy, I could have been dinged for the cleaning.

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I reviewed the correspondence between you and the hotel. In an email sent to you, the general manager correctly notes that it has a “strict” non-smoking policy. “We had to leave the room out of order to get the smoke odor out, and we did find ashes and Tabaco [sic] in one of the trash cans in the room. We also have your signature up on checking on the do not smoke registration sheet, unfortunately there will not be a rebate on this transaction,” he wrote. But I didn’t see any photos of the alleged evidence. (Related: Charged $700 for damaging the TV set in my room!)

What to do about smoke in your hotel room

I happen to agree with Marriott’s non-smoking policy. Certainly, a hotel guest has the right to smoke, but if you’ve ever stayed in a hotel where the previous guest smoked in the room, you know the stench of tobacco lingers for days and gets into your clothes. I would pay extra to breathe clean air, a fact Marriott probably knows.

I also agree that the $250 is fair. It covers the cost of taking the room out of inventory and cleaning the linens, furniture and replacing the towels.

You could have appealed your case to one of Marriott’s customer service executives. I list their names, numbers and email addresses on my consumer advocacy website.

It’s true that Marriott gets more than its fair share of cleaning-fee complaints, but not enough for me to think it is using these fees to generate revenue in any systematic way. It’s simply too risky. Still, I thought Marriott might want to review your case one more time.

I contacted the company, and it refunded the $250 cleaning fee.

Update (6/8/23): Since this article appeared in 2016, smoking fees have risen to between $300 and $500 per cleaning. Clearly, there’s a profit to be made here.

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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 Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. He is based in Los Angeles.

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