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Florida Attorney General's Office Maintains Vigilance Over
 Hotel Surcharges and Additional Hotel Resort Fees
By Diane C. Lade, South Florida Sun-SentinelMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Jun. 22, 2007 -- Summer travelers who don't check out hotel charges before they check in might get an unpleasant surprise at the end of their stay.

The hotel industry is finding new ways to slip automatic surcharges, along with other additional fees, onto the bill. They range from $1 or $2 for a room safe to a $40 daily resort fee covering poolside towels, golf courses or tennis courts -- whether you use these amenities or not.

"You truly have to be careful. By the time you're done, your $50-a-day hotel turns out to be $100 a day," says Miggy Hunt of Identity Travel in Hollywood, which books large groups into South Florida resort hotels.

That adds up to big money. PricewaterhouseCoopers, the accounting firm that tracks hospitality trends, estimates hotel fees and surcharges will net a record $1.75 billion this year, more than triple the $500 million they brought in five years ago.

The Florida Attorney General's Office is investigating two hotel companies over automatic charges and fee disclosures, said spokeswoman Sandi Copes: Tri-State Hospitality Inc. in Orlando -- operators of Sleep Inn & Suites as well as Choice Hotels International -- and the Boulevard Motel Corp., which runs a Comfort Inn in West Palm Beach.

The Attorney General's Office, which started a deceptive-trade practice investigation in 2001 after state employees traveling for business noticed unexpected charges on their bills, settled with three major hotel management companies and owners since 2005, the latest being what was then called Wyndham International.

Wyndham, purchased by LXR Properties in 2005, agreed last year to list automatic charges as rates were quoted upfront and reservations made. The company also will refund a total of $560,000 to hotel guests who stayed at 37 Wyndham Florida properties between May 29, 1998, and July 28, 2006.

Most hotels involved in the settlement were in South Florida, Sanibel, Orlando and the Florida Keys. For more information and to file a claim, call 800-930-0057 or go to www.myfloridalegal.com and put the words "Wyndham restitution" in the search field. Claims must be received or postmarked by Oct. 27.

While federal law requires guests be notified about add-on fees, experts say how and when that happens will vary between hotels and the type of charge or service.

"A lot of times, the hotels are pretty sneaky. They put Perrier and snacks in a basket in your room and you think, 'Oh, that's nice.' You don't see the little card next to it that says you'll be charged for it," said Anne Banas, executive editor of SmarterTravel.com.

Travelers can protect themselves from sticker shock by asking upfront whether a rate quote is all-inclusive -- and if not, determining in advance what taxes, fees and automatic surcharges will be added, said Tod Marks, senior editor at Consumer Reports, which published an investigation on hotels this month. "Once you book, it's hard to get charges erased," Marks said.

And stay away from extras such as the minibar, the telephone and in-room meals if you want to save, as these hotel money-makers may cost more than guests realize. For example, Marks said, a resort may levy an automatic tray charge or delivery fee for room service on top of the expected gratuity.

Automatic hotel fee complaints filed with the Florida Attorney General's Office have been up in recent years, going from one in 2003 to 10 last year. Eight already have been lodged this year. Resort fees and other automatic charges have come under increased scrutiny, as these costs are added to the bill regardless of the services a consumer uses.

In 2005, Marriott International and Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide, whose brands include Westin and Sheraton, agreed to disclose automatic charges and change its policies after an investigation by the Florida Attorney General's Office, but did not have to pay guests restitution.

Joe McInerny, president and CEO of the American Hotel and Lodging Association, said the major hotel chains now are complying with disclosure rules and no longer assess an energy surcharge, which was found illegal in California several years ago.

"They understand the ramifications. They want to have happy guests, who will go back and tell their friends what a good time they had at their hotels," said McInereny, whose association represents about 10,000 hotels.

But smaller operators "may be confused or not understand," McInerny added. "Or they think that because they are a small property, no one will pay attention."

Hotels are allowed to impose automatic surcharges but must "clearly and conspicuously" show them prior to someone booking, said Karen Hobbs, staff attorney with the Federal Trade Commission's marketing practices division.

"I think the industry is sensitive to this but is trying to figure out at what point they disclose," Hobbs said.

Automatic surcharges and add-on fees have become more popular as hotels struggle to recoup the in-room phone revenue they lost when more guests started carrying cell phones, said Joseph J. West, dean of the School of Hospitality and Tourism Management at Florida International University in Miami.

Waiting to tack on charges until right before a booking is made can keep a lower, more attractive base rate in front of hotel shoppers longer, West said.

Consumers always can ask for resort and other "automatic" fees to be waived.

"Everything at a hotel is negotiable. How negotiable it will be just depends on if it is high or low season, and how many vacant rooms the hotel has," West said.

Staff Writer Diane Lade can be reached at 561-243-6618 or dlade@sun-sentinel.com.

ONLINE Have you stayed in a Florida Wyndham property between May 29, 1998, and July 28, 2006? Check out the list of hotels and claim instructions at Sun-Sentinel.com/helpteam

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To see more of The South Florida Sun-Sentinel or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.sun-sentinel.com/.

Copyright (c) 2007, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

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