Thursday, August 14, 2008

How hotels help themselves to your money

Reposted From CNN.com.

How hotels help themselves to your money

By Christopher Elliott
Tribune Media Services

(Tribune Media Services) -- If you think your hotel is done with you when you check out, think again. It might just be getting started.

Charges can be quietly added to your hotel bill after you've left. And increasingly, they are.

When John Richards was a weekly guest at a W Hotels & Resorts property, the items he found on his credit card bill after checkout were often bogus -- a candy bar he hadn't eaten or a bottle of water he hadn't drunk. Although he successfully fought to have the charges reversed, "it got to the point that before I checked in, I would ask them to remove the goodie-box from my room," he says.

Just a year ago, about one in 200 bills at full-service hotels were revised after checkout, according to Bjorn Hanson, an associate professor at New York University. Today, as hotels struggle with slipping occupancy levels and flat-lining growth, properties are wasting no opportunity to add late charges. As a result, the number of re-billings has doubled.

The late charges are usually correct, say experts. And if they aren't, most hotels are quick to correct the error. But not always. Some properties either resist crediting their customers or refuse.

That's what happened to Charles Garnar when he stayed at the Renaissance Fort Lauderdale Hotel recently. "When we checked out, we were told there were no charges so we had a zero balance," he remembers. But when he returned home after a cruise vacation, he found an unwelcome surprise on his credit card statement: a $57 charge. "It took two days to get through to the accounts payable department," he says. "They said we used the minibar."

The hotel only removed the charges after he proved it couldn't have been him. How? Garnar had turned down the minibar key when he checked in.

This shouldn't be happening, of course. The latest hotel accounting systems let you see your room charges in real time, often from your TV screen. There's no reason the bill that's slipped under the door on the morning of your checkout shouldn't include all of your charges, with the possible exception of your breakfast check. "It should be your final bill," says Robert Mandelbaum, a hotel expert with PKF Consulting.

I contacted several hotel chains to find out about their policy on late charges, including Marriott (which owns the Renaissance) and W Hotels. Only one of the major hotels, InterContinental, bothered to respond. My favorite non-answer came from W, where a spokeswoman told me that, "because of transitions in the company, we don't have an appropriate spokesperson to speak on this topic right now."

Oh, too bad.

Here's what InterContinental, which owns the Crowne Plaza, Holiday Inn and Staybridge Suites brands, had to say about late billing. It's rare, and usually only happens when guests choose the express checkout option -- that's where the bill is slipped under your door on the day of checkout. If you bill something to your room after 3 a.m., chances are you'll get a late charge.

Normally, guests aren't notified about the charges, because they've agreed to them as part of the terms of their express checkout. But when there's a significant additional fee, a hotel typically notifies travelers before billing them. What if they disagree with the bill? Contact the hotel and tell a representative you have a problem with the charge, recommends InterContinental spokesman Brad Minor.

"Our hotels value their guests and we want to make sure guests are satisfied with all aspects of their stay," he says.

I'm pretty confident that the other hotels would have said more or less the same thing. But guests don't necessarily agree with that. After I posted Richards' story on my blog, I received a firestorm of comments accusing the hotels of deliberately charging guests after their stay, in the hopes that they wouldn't notice. InterContinental says that's not how it works.

It doesn't really matter. What matters is that you, the guest, don't get socked with a surprise charge on your credit card days or weeks after your vacation. Here are three excuses hotels use for separating you from your money after you're long gone. You might hear some of these reasons articulated by a hotel employee -- other excuses are probably reserved for the privacy of the break room or the hotel's executive offices.

You sure you didn't take something from the minibar?

A vast majority of late checkout charges -- about 75 percent, according to Hanson -- are from those little refrigerators stocked with vastly overpriced snacks. Hotel minibars have become figurative traps that guests get stuck in. Often, they don't even know about it until it's too late. The newest minibars have sensors that charge your room the moment an item is moved. Here's a chilling first-person account of an unsuspecting guest falling into one of these traps at a Los Angeles hotel, courtesy of HotelChatter.

The solution? Don't accept the key to your minibar. If there's no key, ask to have the minibar (or goody-basket) removed. It's the only way to be sure.

But you checked out before we could charge you!

Unless you're talking about breakfast on the day you check out, this is an empty excuse. Remember, most hotel accounting systems are lightning-fast. The moment you sign your check for an activity or meal, your account is charged. Experts I spoke with say it's possible some charges can get stuck in the system. A good example is a hotel gift shop that for some reason still uses a paper system to handle room charges. But if a major charge shows up on your credit card, it's worth calling the hotel. If it took this long to get billed, can they be sure it's correct?

The solution? Review your bill before checking out to make sure nothing is missing. And check out your credit card bill after your stay to make sure nothing is added.

We didn't think you would notice

I have no proof -- no memos or transcripts of scheming hotel employees saying this -- except for scores of guest experiences that suggest this attitude is pervasive behind the front desk. For example, Eugene Santhin, who was a frequent business traveler from Mt. Laurel, New Jersey, before retiring, says he was often billed for water and minibar items that weren't consumed. "Many properties charged for breakfast when it was included in the room rate," he adds. To their credit, the hotels quickly removed the items when he protested. But it was the speed with which they did so that made him suspicious. Were they adding these extras to his bill, hoping he wouldn't notice? It's difficult to say for certain.

The solution? Pay attention! Your hotel may be trying to pull a fast one, despite its denials. Keep all of your receipts.

Not all late billings hurt hotel guests. Reader Kate Trabue remembers a recent stay at the InterContinental Sydney where she was hit with unexpected room charges after she checked out. "A call to the billing department got the charges reversed without a problem," she remembers. "The interesting part of this transaction was that because of the exchange rate, I was credited more dollars than the original charge."

(Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. This column originally appeared on MSNBC.com. You can read more travel tips on his blog, elliott.org or e-mail him at celliott@ngs.org).

© 2008 CHRISTOPHER ELLIOTT DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.

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