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Hilton to End Calling Card Fees : Hotels: Travelers have complained for years about the surcharges. Other major chains are expected to follow.


One of travelers' biggest gripes--the charges that hotels slap them with for using telephone calling cards--may soon be on the way out.

Hilton Hotels plans to announce today that it will eliminate the lucrative but annoying charges--ranging from 75 cents to $1 per call--on telephone calling cards. Although they raise millions of dollars in revenue, the fees also generate the largest number of customer complaints, said the Beverly Hills-based company.

"It's viewed as a rip-off," said Bob Dirks, vice president of marketing for Hilton, who said guests make phone calls from hotel lobbies to avoid the charges. "The consumer is telling us that 'when I'm using a calling card, I shouldn't be charged by the hotel.' "

Other hotels might be forced to drop the charges now that Hilton--one of the largest players in the hotel business--has adopted the policy.

"We are doing extensive customer research on telephone access charges," said Gordon Lambourne, a spokesman for the Marriott hotel chain. Marriott guests who use calling cards are charged 75 cents a call. Similar charges apply at Hyatt, Sheraton and other major chains. Hilton will drop the fees beginning July 1 at 65 hotels, with the rest of the chain's more than 240 properties expected to follow suit within a few months, Dirks said. A surcharge will still be applied, however, on local and long-distance calls made without calling cards.

While Hilton's policy applies to all guests, cutting out the fees will certainly please busy business travelers, said Christopher McGinnis, director of Travel Skills Group, an Atlanta-based business travel consulting firm. Traveling sales representatives can make 10 or 20 calls a day from hotel rooms to co-workers, customers or family members, he said.

"For a business traveler who uses the phone as a tool, it's not too much fun," said McGinnis. "It's pretty outrageous when you think about it."

Hotels provided free telephone service until the early 1980s, when regulators permitted them to resell phone service to guests for an additional fee, hotel industry consultants said. As a result, the hotel switchboard became a moneymaker instead of a financial drain, as some hotels imposed steep fees.

"They used to give away those phone calls," said Mark Lomanno, executive director of Smith Travel Research. "Now they really sock it to you."

After spending a night in a New York hotel several years ago, lodging consultant Bruce Baltin recalls paying more for the phone bill than the room.

"A lot of hotels in the mid-1980s went overboard and put in some aggressive charges," said Baltin, who works for PKF Consulting in Los Angeles. "The reason people make credit card calls in the first place is because the charge from the guest rooms are so expensive. It's a pet peeve of mine."

Responding to guests' complaints, many hotels have stopped charging for calls to toll-free numbers. In fact, the 40-unit Stouffer hotel chain stopped charging fees to guests using calling cards in 1988. But few other hotel chains have been willing to sacrifice the revenue.

Some franchisees have resisted attempts by hotel chains to ban the phone charges, according to industry consultants.

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