When you search for hotel deals online, what you initially see is often not what you get, since many chains don’t include all of their mandatory fees in their advertised room rates.
Often, the true price of a room, which may include resort fees (also known as destination fees or amenities fees), isn’t disclosed until later in your online checkout process, in what the Federal Trade Commission calls “drip pricing,” a technique used by companies to either deceive or persuade shoppers into spending more for a product or service.
Poorly disclosed resort fees have frustrated hotel customers for years, but there’s a growing number of people who want to put a stop to it. There are some simple steps you can take to protect yourself and your fellow consumers too.
How bad can resort fees really be?
The biggest complaints about resort fees seem to be that they’re not factored into the room rate, even though the fees are mandatory, and the amenities provided for the additional fee are often for items that customers either don’t want, like use of the hotel’s landline phones and fax machines, or would have expected to be included in the original room rate, like use of the hotel’s fitness center.
“The resort fee is a scourge on the travel industry, and it seems to be getting worse,” said Brian Kelly, founder and CEO of The Points Guy. “I've seen resort fees over $100 per night, which is simply outrageous.”
The Points Guy has dedicated lots of webspace to resort fee frustrations over the years, including an article titled “The 10 Most Outrageous Resort Fees,” which detailed how many non-resorts have gotten into the resort fees game, which can make a hotel chain upwards of $100 million a year.
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Why aren't hotels transparent with fees?
In 2012, the Department of Transportation under President Obama issued a new rule requiring airlines to disclose all mandatory fees in the very first advertised rates customers see when buying flights online. That same year, the Federal Trade Commission warned 22 hotel chains to be more transparent when it came to their poorly disclosed mandatory fees, as well.
However, the Federal Trade Commission took no formal action against hotels, under either the Obama or Trump administrations, and the prevalence of resort fees only grew in subsequent years.
The FTC issued a new report in 2017 detailing how resort fees and drip pricing hurt consumers, but it again took no formal action, and now under President Biden’s watch, an FTC spokesperson told NBCLX the agency had no comment on potential future action.
Democrats and Republicans agree on stopping hidden hotel fees
In 2019, a bipartisan group of lawmakers, led by Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, a Democrat from Texas, and Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, a Republican from Nebraska, introduced H.R. 4489, “The Hotel Advertising Transparency Act,” which would require hotels to display the full pre-tax price of a room while searching and comparing lodging options.
“Our bill is trying to make sure that we are creating truth in advertising. That's all it does,” said Rep. Josh Harder, a Democrat from California and one of the bill’s co-sponsors. “If a hotel is going to put in whatever charges they are, they should show that to you upfront.”
The bill died without ever getting a hearing. According to Harder, it was a victim of both disinterested lawmakers and the hotel and lodging industry — one of Washington’s most politically active interests.
The industry spends well north of $10 million a year on Washington lobbyists, according to OpenSecrets.org, plus millions more in statehouses around the country. It’s also generous when it comes to writing campaign checks to politicians seeking office.
Will the hotel industry ever address hidden fees on its own?
Just weeks after depositions revealed how much money Marriott was collecting from resort and destination fees, the chain announced as part of a settlement with the attorney general of Pennsylvania that it would end its longstanding drip pricing practices and disclose the total cost of a room in initial searches.
However, the settlement only came after years of litigation over the corporation’s business practices. And most other hotel chains are still advertising room rates far below what it actually costs to stay in their properties for a night.
Marriott declined NBCLX’s request for comment but said in a statement that it required any hotel that charged a resort fee to provide significant value to customers in return, and that customers always saw the full price of a room during subsequent stages of the checkout process before submitting payment.
Marriott said it’s enhanced disclosures will go into effect “over the next several months.” It’s not clear if any other chains will follow suit, though some online travel sites proactively took those steps years ago.
How to avoid hotel resort fees
We’re glad you asked, since the best consumer protections are likely to come from you, the consumer, until the FTC or Congress changes their ways.
1. The best way to comparison shop for a hotel room is through online travel sites like Hotels.com or Expedia, which display the true cost of the room, including all taxes and fees, on their initial search pages.
2. If you find a hotel online with an added fee you don’t want to pay, The Points Guy suggests calling the hotel and asking if they’d consider waiving the charge if you agreed to book directly through the hotel. This saves the hotel third-party charges and could be a win-win for you both.
3. If you’re already at a hotel that’s charging you a resort fee or amenities fee, try asking the front desk to waive the charge — especially if it’s for services you won’t be using during your stay. It doesn’t hurt to ask!
How to help end hotel resort fees
Several members of Congress are again discussing legislation that would require all hotels to provide the true cost of a room upfront. But they need more lawmakers to sign on to get the bill a hearing. That’s where you come in.
1. You can send a short message to your member of Congress, with a link to this story, telling them you’d like them to co-sponsor truth-in-hotel pricing legislation. (Yes, they really do notice when they get constituents’ mail.) You can find your representatives in Congress here, then scroll to the bottom of each member’s page for an address, phone number or fax number. You can also find their email addresses on each member’s contact page.
2. A group of watchdogs recently asked the FTC to issue new rules that would ban drip pricing. You can let the FTC what you’d like to see them do with this request by sending them a message here.
3. The White House could also help influence the FTC, so if you’d like to send a message to the Biden Administration about consumer protection, use this form and select “Help with a Federal Agency.”
Noah Pransky is NBCLX’s National Political Editor. He covers Washington and state politics for NBCLX, and his investigative work has been honored with national Murrow, Polk, duPont, and Cronkite awards. You can contact him confidentially at email@example.com or on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter.