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A Good Call: Fewer Hotels Are Dialing for Your Dollars : Fees: More and more establishments are dropping irksome add-on phone charges, especially on card calls.


The war is far from won, but consumers can claim another small victory in the struggle for reasonable hotel room telephone fees.

Earlier this month, Marriott Hotels announced that most of its lodgings are eliminating their 75-cent phone-card access fee on guest room toll calls--following a move made a year ago by most domestic Hilton hotels.

And at Choice Hotels, a conglomerate that includes roughly 2,600 Clarion, Quality Inns, Comfort Inns, Rodeway, Sleep Inns, Econo Lodges and Friendship Inns in the United States, a spokeswoman reports that half of all U.S. Choice properties now offer free phone-card, 800 and local calls--twice as many properties as last year at this time.

The Marriott announcement, which affects 15 hotels in Southern California and more than 140 of its 207 hotels in the United States, was principally aimed at business travelers; the hotel company also pledged elimination of fees on incoming faxes and some reductions in fees for photocopying and outgoing faxes. But travelers of all kinds have long been frustrated--and sometimes justifiably outraged--over the nickels, dimes, quarters and dollars that hotels extract from them in exchange for simple telephone services.

Consider the case of Val Ponomaroff, a traveler from Shell Beach who checked into Whiskey Pete's in Stateline, Nev., one day last month. Ponomaroff paid $31 a night for his room--not a bad deal--but then he dialed his wife in California three times. He got no answer each time, yet the next day found that his hotel bill included $3.30 for each unanswered phone call. There was no mistake. Under the system in place at that hotel, management confirms, guests can be charged if they let an unanswered outgoing call ring more than three or four times.

Obviously, sorting out hotel phone charges can be a tricky business. Hotels negotiate varying contracts with different communications companies, sometimes using one for local calls and another for long-distance service.

Many hotels assess no fee for phone-card calls or 800 calls, but will add 25 cents to $1 to your bill for local calls or directly dialed long-distance calls not made with a phone card. Even a local call can be a complicated proposition: some cross-town numbers, though within the same area code, nevertheless carry added costs. Sometimes, these charges are clearly disclosed on or near guest telephones; sometimes, a guest needs to do detective work. If you're not clear on the situation, call the hotel operator and ask for a cost rundown.

Among U.S. hotels, the most consumer-friendly phone fees are usually at the cheapest lodgings. The 768 Motel 6 properties in the United States, for instance, add no fee for calling-card calls, 800 calls or local calls (a policy that was in place before Hilton made its move last year). At Forte Hotels, which includes 450 Travelodge Hotels in North America, guests pay no added charges for phone-card or 800 calls but do pay varying rates for local calls. (Under its Frequent Guest program debuting in October, repeat Forte customers can qualify for free local calls.)

Charges crop up more often among mid- and high-end hotels, which are often accused of exploiting the expense accounts of business travelers. In apparent response to such complaints, some chains have set up programs specifically aimed at business travelers who will be making a lot of phone calls. At Hilton Hotels, guests at 85 locations can pay a higher room rate to qualify for a BusinesSavers program, which offers free local calls and other perks. Hyatt's Business Plan, unveiled in January, and Sheraton's Club Level promotion, introduced in April, are similar.

Whether you're in a lavish hotel or bare-bones motel, if you have to direct-dial a long-distance number from your room phone (rather than using a phone card), or get operator assistance on a long-distance call, you can expect to pay substantially more than you pay at home. If you don't mind the inconvenience, using a lobby pay phone is almost invariably cheaper than using the phone in your room--but be careful you don't end up doing business with an alternative long-distance company with rates substantially higher than those charged by companies such as AT&T or MCI.

Much of the current move to reduce phone fees seems to have grown from Hilton's announcement a year ago. In that move, 130 of the 244 Hilton Hotels in the United States abandoned the practice of charging 75 cents to $1 for each phone-card call, 800 call and collect call. Hilton continued its fees of 75 cents to $1.25 for local calls and directly dialed long-distance calls, however. (Since then, a spokeswoman says, the number of participating Hiltons has increased to more than 150.)

Some chains have not seen fit to change their phone-charge policies. At Sheraton's 273 North American properties, fees remain where they were last year: 800 calls are free, and costs run up to 75 cents for local calls, $1 for phone-card calls. Hyatt Hotels, with 103 properties in North America and the Caribbean, is another company sticking to its rates so far: 800 calls are free, but from most rooms, local and phone-card calls carry a fee of 75 cents.

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