Did this guy just get slammed by the most expensive service fee ever?

Is this the most expensive service fee ever?

Peter Shields may have just found the most expensive service fee on record. He booked a one night stay at a trendy hotel in London for a reasonable $282. But then the online booking agent slammed him with an additional service charge of $162. Now Shields wants the Elliott Advocacy team to investigate.

Can we find out what’s going on here?

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Shields’ tale is a reminder to all travelers to carefully review the terms of your reservations before clicking confirm. This is especially true when using a third-party booking site that may slip in its own additional charges. In his case, the shockingly expensive service fee was on display in multiple places, but Shields never saw it. That is, not until it was too late.

Looking for a good deal on a hotel

Shields’ story begins late one evening as he was surfing the internet looking for a good deal on a hotel. He intended to spend one night in London. His search brought him to a third-party booking site he had never heard of before.

“I booked a room at the St Martins Lane Hotel through the Getaroom site,” Shields recalled. “The $282 price quoted for one night was in line with my expectations.”

But Shields was in for an unpleasant surprise about this nonrefundable reservation he had just booked.

A short time later, he received the confirmation for his stay. He says that’s when the big reveal happened. The deal was no longer a bargain at all. The online booking agent had added a sky-high service fee.

“When the confirmation of my internet reservation came through, this company had added a $162 service fee to the reservation,” Shields explained. “I had no idea about this fee!”

Can an online travel agency charge this sky-high service fee?
Shields received quite a shock when he took a look at this confirmation with the sky-high service fee included.

These expensive service fees have blindsided others

Shields says he started scouring through the terms and conditions of the reservation. He quickly realized this was something he should have done before handing over his credit card to the online company.

To his chagrin, Shields discovered that Getaroom is not a free online booking agent. This company charges a service fee to its users — an astronomical one, according to this reservation.

What are Tax Recovery Charges & Service Fees?

This charge includes the estimated amount we pay the hotel for occupancy related taxes owed by the hotel and any amounts charged to us for resort fees, cleaning fees, and other fees.

The balance of the charge is a fee we, the hotel supplier and/or the website you booked on, retain as part of the compensation for our and/or their services which varies based on factors such as location, the amount, and how you booked. (from Shields’ hotel confirmation)

Next, Shields says he did an internet search for reviews of the company. That’s when he discovered that he isn’t the only unsuspecting traveler to get blindsided by these expensive service fees.

“I was amazed to see that Getaroom has caught many others,” Shields remembered. “Which, although I still feel embarrassed that I was caught, I am a little relieved that I’m not alone.”

Looking through all the information in his confirmation, Shields says he decided to accept the repercussions of his oversight.

“It would appear that, by using the site, you are accepting their terms and conditions!!!!” Shields lamented. “I suppose that includes this service fee.”

He determined he would take this experience as a hard and expensive lesson learned.

This hotel doesn’t charge a resort fee!

But days after Shields had decided to accept his fate, his frustration over the costly service fee returned. When he checked into the hotel, information confronted him that turned his embarrassment over the incident into anger. He asked the hotel representatives about this giant charge and what it would cover.

“I confirmed with the hotel that this [$162 service fee] is not something they charge,” Shields reported. “Nor do they receive that fee from the third-party booking agent!”

Shields completed his stay and then decided to try to do something about the situation: he contacted the Elliott Advocacy team.

Asking the Elliott Advocacy team to investigate

When I read through Shields’ complaint, I was similarly shocked by the exorbitant service fee attached to his reservation. Here at Elliott Advocacy, we get complaints about all sorts of surprise fees that the travel industry charges. In fact, our publisher, Christopher Elliott, has extensively written about the increasing problem:

But Shields’ huge service fee problem topped any complaint I’ve ever previously seen on the subject. This online agent had charged him 57 percent more than he expected to pay for his one night stay. And the company did it under the guise of an undefined service fee.

When Shields contacted our team, he was not hopeful that we could retrieve his cash. His primary mission was to shine a light on what he found to be a predatory tactic by the company.

“To be honest, I wouldn’t want to use up your time on such a small amount and don’t want to spend the emotional energy myself being concerned about it,” Shields told me. “I hope that my experience and any publicity that you can give it will prevent others from making the mistake that I made.”

Uh, using up my time fixing problems? I love to use up my time trying to fix problems. That’s what I’m here to do!

So it was time to ask Getaroom for an explanation.

When was this hefty additional charge revealed?

I took a close look at Shields’ reservation. Although he believed that the website never revealed the service fees until after he clicked confirm, I don’t think that is the case.

I made several mock hotel reservations in London on the Getaroom site. Every hotel that I tried to book did display a service fee under the rate on the booking page. However, these fees typically represented around a 20 percent additional charge. The 57 percent service fee charged on top of the cost of Shields’ room was entirely out of line with any other hotel on the site in London. I suspected that this hefty additional charge might be the result of a computer glitch.

But when Shields presented his case to the company, a representative apologized and offered just a $28 refund.

We go to great lengths to adequately disclose the tax recovery charges and service fees we charge. While we realize the process can sometimes be confusing, we do not feel we deceived or mislead in any way.

In an effort to resolve your concerns and as a gesture of goodwill, we can issue a refund in the amount of $28 back to the original form of payment. 

Although that brought the unexpected charge down to $134, it still left this service fee in the stratosphere of service fees.

Here’s the refund of that really expensive service fee!

So I sent an email inquiry to the company. I pointed out that Shields’ additional charges were nearly the cost of another night of lodging. I asked their team to explain what that giant fee was covering — especially since the hotel does not charge a resort fee.

And within hours, Shields had almost all of his money back. I received nearly an identical form letter as Shields did, but mine included an additional $112 refund. Unfortunately, no explanation of the astronomical fee came with the notice.

We go to great lengths to adequately disclose the tax recovery charges and service fees we charge. While we realize the process can sometimes be confusing, we do not feel we deceived or mislead in any way.

In an effort to resolve your concerns and as a gesture of goodwill, we will be issuing a refund in the amount of $112.00 back to the original form of payment. 

Now with just a $25 service fee balance, Shields says he’s delighted with the outcome. And one thing is sure: In the future, he won’t be making hotel reservations through online booking agents that charge giant service fees and provide nothing special in return.

How to avoid getting surprised by expensive service fees during your travels

Shields recognized that he made some critical mistakes with this hotel reservation. Those mistakes almost cost him $162. Here are some ways to make sure you don’t get surprised by expensive service fees.

  • Book direct: Of course, booking directly with the hotel doesn’t guarantee you won’t get hit by expensive service or resort fees. Still, it will cut out the possibility of an unrelated middleman hitting you even harder with additional charges. Keep in mind, although most of the big online booking agencies don’t charge fees to use the service — many of the smaller ones do.
  • Read all the terms: Make sure you understand all the terms of your reservation before handing over your credit card information. Pay close attention to the fine print, since that’s usually where the real “gotcha” zingers are hiding.
  • Only use recommended websites: Our team receives many complaints from consumers who have used obscure sites to make travel plans. This is often a grave error. Many of these sites offer little or no customer service support, should things go wrong. Check the online reputation of any unknown company you’re considering using.  Only use established booking agents with a track record of resolving customer service issues.
  • Make complaints before — not after — your stay: If you believe there is an error on your reservation, attempt to resolve the problem immediately. Issues involving overbilling are always much more difficult to fix after the fact.
  • Don’t book nonrefundable rates: Although travelers often book nonrefundable rates with the thought that they are saving money, these savings are typically minimal. Spending a few extra dollars on a refundable rate can lead to an easy resolution (by cancellation) should disputes arise over a hefty service fee — or any other problem with the reservation. (Michelle Couch-Friedman, Elliott Advocacy)