Why we’re still paying resort fees

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Why are we still paying resort fees? Weren’t they supposed to go away?

That’s what some travelers thought. Late last year, Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro (D) announced a settlement with Marriott International that required the hotel chain to disclose the controversial extras at the start of any booking transaction.

“Hotels shouldn’t be able to slap hidden fees on top of your bill at the last minute,” Shapiro stated in a press release at the time. “Thanks to this settlement, we’re putting the hotel industry on notice to put an end to this deceptive practice.”

Many incorrectly assumed that the settlement would kill all resort fees within a few months. But today, hotel resort fees — mandatory daily charges for items that should be included in your stay — remain widespread. Marriott may be in the process of improving its disclosure, but the industry has not followed suit.

The pandemic forced some properties to remove their resort fees temporarily. According to the site ResortFeeChecker, 1,779 hotels in the United States charge a resort fee, down about 17 percent from the high-water mark in 2018. But the trend is quickly reversing itself as demand bounces back.

Eric Stone was one of many travelers who hoped the fees would disappear this year. But when he checked into the Shelter Hotel in Los Angeles recently, the property added a mandatory $20 “service fee” to his bill. When I checked to see what the fee covered, I found a disclosure on its site that said it was for “certain amenities or facilities.”

“There was no effort at all to justify it,” says Stone, a retired nonprofit director from Los Gatos, Calif. They could just as well have said: “All room rates listed are actually $20 more than the amount shown.”

I contacted the hotel to find out about the mysterious service fee. It did not respond.

Hotels need the extra revenue from resort fees, says David Corsun, director of the Fritz Knoebel School of Hospitality Management at the University of Denver.

“Particularly now,” he says. “Despite occupancy and rates coming back strong, owners, management companies and brands want and need profitability. Despite resorts doing better than urban properties during the pandemic, all have to make up for losses incurred during lockdowns and eroding margins due to the higher wages they must pay to attract talent.”

Nevertheless, hotel guests are unhappy with the slow progress. “It’s a total scam to hide the true price when you are searching by price,” says Tom Harriman, a lawyer from Clarksville, Md. “The paradoxical thing is that the cheaper hotels, particularly suites or extended-stay properties like Holiday Inn, do not charge resort fees. They also give you a pool, a laundry, a free hot breakfast and free parking.”

If you see a hotel with a resort fee, but don’t want to pay it, you have options.

“A simple call to the hotel in advance would help,” says John T. Peters, CEO of the consulting firm Mind Mashery. “Often, the reservations agent or even the front desk clerk might help you avoid or reduce these fees. They might suggest you pay with a particular credit card to avoid the fee. Sometimes, resort fees are waived for top-tier loyalty members. My point is: It can’t hurt to ask.”

You can also negotiate at the end of your stay, although that’s a little harder.

“The best way to avoid a resort fee is to ask to have it removed because you are not going to use it,” says Robert A. Rauch, CEO of RA Rauch & Associates, a hospitality management and consulting firm. For example, if your hotel resort fee includes the use of the property’s fitness center, but you don’t use the exercise bike or pool, you can ask to have it removed from your bill.

The loophole, as always, is disclosure. You have a strong case for removing the charge if the hotel does not disclose the fee. I know of several cases where a credit card dispute led to the removal of an undisclosed resort fee.

Attitudes towards resort fees are shifting, too. Michael Rubino recently booked 10 rooms at the Marriott Marquis San Diego Marina for an employee meeting. Each room had a mandatory daily resort fee of $35. Over four nights, I spent $1,400 in resort fees.

Rubino, the president of a cleaning products company, says the amenities they could receive were specific. They included a $15 daily restaurant credit, a wine tasting for two people, and daily rentals of bicycles, stand-up paddleboards and kayaks.

“In the past year or so, I’ve noticed an uptick in transparency in disclosing these fees while booking for Marriott hotels that myself and my employees have stayed in,” he says. “Before that, they were not as forthcoming.”

It’s too soon to judge the effectiveness of the Pennsylvania settlement, says Jacklin Rhoads, a spokeswoman for Pennsylvania’s attorney general. Marriott has until January to implement the changes. The company seems to be making some progress: Rhoads says the Marriott site now allows users to click a box that generates all the pricing info inclusive of the resort fees. Only 6 percent of Marriott properties charge a resort fee now, vs. the 19 percent national average, says ResortFeeChecker publisher Randy Greencorn.

“We feel strongly that all fees should be disclosed upfront,” Rhoads added. “Consumers should know what pricing options are available to them at the beginning of their trip planning.”

There are several ongoing cases related to resort fee disclosure, according to Charles Leocha, president of the consumer advocacy group Travelers United. He notes that some are still in the discovery phase and won’t go to court until next year. “The process just takes time,” he says.

In the meantime, the best way to avoid paying resort fees is to avoid hotels that have them. If you’re not sure whether your hotel charges one, check out ResortFeeChecker.com, which tracks them.

But the odds are good that it will. “With hotel demand returning this year, we have seen a recent surge in the number of hotels charging resort fees,” Greencorn says. In the past three months, he says, the number of hotels charging a resort fee has ballooned by 7.2 percent.

Some hotels are headed in the opposite direction. Mohonk Mountain House, a resort in New Paltz, NY, dropped its 15 percent per night resort fee late last year. Barbara Stirewalt, the resort’s vice president and general manager, said the resort wanted to offer “more simple and transparent pricing to our guests.”

Stirewalt says the resort has a long tradition as an inclusive resort, with meals and many recreational activities folded into rates. “So removing the extra fees makes perfect sense,” she says.

The hotel industry as a whole is not convinced. Resort fees are still here, and they’re on the upswing. You’ll need to look carefully before booking.

Potential travelers should take local and national public health directives regarding the pandemic into consideration before planning any trips. Travel health notice information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDC’s travel health notice webpage.

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