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TravelHaven News Brief – Hotels Follow Airlines’ Lead

Travel columnist Christopher Elliott asks (on msnbc.com): “What can we do about resorts following the airlines’ lead in cutting amenities and tacking on charges?”

If you think hotels will never stoop to the level of airlines — charging extra for anything that isn’t bolted down — maybe you haven’t heard of easyHotel. Rooms at this cut-rate European hotel chain may be cheap (about $35 a night) but if you need anything “extra” — like maid service, a fresh towel or a TV, it’ll cost you. Add it all up, and your stay is closer to $50 a night and less of a bargain.

American hotels, long envious of the so-called “ancillary” revenues that can be extracted from guests by quoting a deceptively low base rate and then piling on mandatory extras, are watching easyHotel carefully. They certainly aren’t strangers to added fees, but charging guests for housekeeping and standard amenities definitely crosses a line. Many are hoping customers will buy it.

Do we really want to live in their a la carte world? Mandatory tips, room safe rental, and concierge fees are bad enough. But towels and TV sets? What’s next, a fee for the bed?

One of the worst airline-isms the hotel industry has copied is the nonrefundable reservation, while failing to disclose such critically important conditions. William Chiles booked a room in Miami recently through an online travel agency and had to cancel: “I did not realize that it was classified as non-refundable.” Neither the hotel, nor the online agency, offered him any hope of refund, even though he canceled well in advance of his visit.

Andrea Gleason was infuriated when she checked out of the Monte Carlo Las Vegas Resort and Casino recently. The hotel had added a $9.50-a-day “resort fee” for, among other things, the use of the pool. “This charge is made even when booking a complimentary room through the slot clubs,” she says. “Some of the agents will inform you of the fee at the time of booking, but not all of them. This makes the complimentary room not so complimentary.”

Asking guests to pay extra for the pool makes about as much sense as selling an airline seat that doesn’t include a piece of checked luggage — none at all.

Just like some low-cost airlines, many hotels that used to offer free bottles of water and other refreshments to their guests now have “unbundled” that amenity. Those bottles will cost you. Worse, some hotels aren’t exactly up front about it and charge you in a deceptive way. Traci Fox was at a casino in Connecticut when she saw a few bottles and snacks on the dresser. That’s when she noticed the price and the sensors. “You get charged when you lift an item from the tray,” she says.

Some airline ancillary fees are similar, such as those that require you to pay extra for a seat reservation or a “convenience fee” to pay by credit card.

Perhaps one of the most disheartening airline strategies the hotel industry is borrowing is the practice of cutting costs until there’s almost nothing left. They say the belt-tightening helps them stay competitive, but it’s squeezing every last penny of profit out of their planes — or properties. While airlines neglect their staff, facilities and the inside of their planes, hotels have found other ways of paring their expenses.

Margaret Juergensmeyer remembers one Washington hotel that turned off the heat during a cold snap in May. “My room was warmer than being outdoors, but not much,” she said, “I played with the thermostat, but the fan only blew cool air. I went to the front desk and learned that the entire hotel had its heat shut off for the spring. It was ‘corporate policy’ and couldn’t be undone.”

Such heedless cost-cutting hurts the company in the end. It irritates — and drives away — return customers.

Can anything be done to reverse this unfortunate trend of adding unpopular policies and new fees and cutting amenities? Or are we all destined to stay at an easyHotel knockoff in the future?

Unlike airlines, we have a lot of choice in hotels. There are usually dozens of hotels regulated by the state, in even a moderate-sized market, not just two or three large providers. It’s still possible to walk away from a hotel that isn’t treating you right.