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On the Spot: Obscured hotel fees

Some hotels are now charging resort, housekeeping and other separate fees, which are not always easy to see. After complaints, the FTC gives consumers some advice.

September 30, 2012|By Catharine Hamm, Los Angeles Times

In the Sept. 23 On the Spot column, reader Mae Chandran of Malibu wrote in to say she had been charged a resort fee of $40.32 at a Las Vegas hotel that "had to be paid before we could check in." She hadn't known about the charge, so she tussled with the online booking agency and eventually got a small reduction in the price.

But, she said in her letter, it really wasn't about the money; it was about the principle, and others agree.

Three consumer advocates last month filed a letter of complaint with the Federal Trade Commission about the practice, which the FTC calls drip pricing. In the letter, signed by longtime consumer advocate Ed Perkins; Charlie Leocha, executive director of the Consumer Travel Alliance; and Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition, they called this practice "a deception scheme whereby a supplier carves out a portion of its true price; labels that portion as a mandatory extra fee or charge; deducts it from the true price; and features the artificially reduced remainder of the true price in advertising, online postings and price information supplied to GDSs [global distribution systems used to book travel] and OTAs [online travel agencies].

"In some cases suppliers add the separated fees before a consumer makes a final purchase commitment. In other cases suppliers wait to spring the mandatory fee on consumers only after they arrive at the hotel or resort ….

"The most common artificially carved-out hotel fees are labeled as 'resort,' 'housekeeping' and 'Internet access'; however, there are others. And with offending hotels and resorts, those fees are mandatory whether or not a consumer actually uses the specific services identified as covered by the fee."

In what appears to be a form-letter response, the FTC responded this month by noting that "the commission does not resolve individual complaints. The commission can, however, act when it sees a pattern of possible violations developing."

If the FTC doesn't resolve such complaints, who will?

You. At least, for now. The FTC put the ball somewhat back in the consumer's court, offering these suggestions for protecting yourself and for taking action. Its response to the three consumer advocates suggested:

Reading the fine print, especially when booking online, or raising the tough question if calling the hotel to make a reservation. We tend to read quickly online and skip the little type. Don't do it. If you're making a reservation by phone, ask for a total with all fees — resort fees and taxes included. Ask that those dollar amounts be broken out, not lumped together, so that you'll know what is a local tax and what the hotel is adding. Ask what the resort fee (or whatever the shell game word of the day happens to be) includes. Ask what happens if you don't want those services. "Be the sophisticated consumer by always reading the fine print or asking before you commit," the FTC said.

Staying at hotels that don't play the resort fee shell game. "Vote with your feet and avoid companies playing this game — and tell them why you're taking your business elsewhere," the FTC said.

Firmly but politely declining to pay those fees. "If you're being charged fees you weren't properly informed of, ask a manager to remove them," the FTC said. "Your chances of success are best if you have something in writing — like a reservation confirmation — that doesn't include the fees."

Making your credit card work for you. "When you offer your credit card as a form of payment, you should only be charged the price you agreed to," the FTC said. "If you have a reservation in writing that doesn't include fees, request a charge back if you're hit with a different amount."

Complaining to the FTC. You won't hear back on your individual complaint. As the FTC says on its website, "Your complaints can help us detect patterns of wrong-doing and lead to investigations and prosecutions." But do go to http://www.ftccomplaintassistant.gov. "You may wish to inform merchants in advance that you'll be filing a complaint — giving them the opportunity to reconsider," the FTC said in its letter to the advocates.

Are you listening hotels? No shame in thinking this over, you know. Or, as Marcus Aurelius said, "Remember that to change thy mind and to follow him that sets thee right is to be none the less the free agent that thou wast before."

Have a travel dilemma? Write to travel@latimes.com. We regret we cannot answer every inquiry.

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