Check in, check out — then check for fees

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To heck with this "staycation" business, you say. You're going to have a real getaway, you say. Look at this great hotel rate, you say -- and then you say something unprintable when you go to check out and find that you've been socked with a whole host of fees you never knew about or budgeted for.

Welcome to the Hotel of Nickel-and-Diming, where everything from that USA Today you'll probably never read to the bottled water next to the sink will cost you. Because room rates are so low, hotel operators are scrambling to find a way to make up the shortfall -- especially because increasingly budget-savvy travelers are holding back on room service, spa or gift shop splurges.

As a result, hotels turn to a bevy of fees and surcharges, many of which you might not be aware of, especially if you book online using a third-party or discounter site.

Of course, this isn't exactly the first time hotels have ratcheted up fees to offset bargain-basement rates. A rash of creative fee-levying popped up after hotel occupancy tanked in the wake of 9/11; more recently, the run-up in the price of oil led to hotels augmenting their room rates with a blizzard of unexpected fees.
What can you expect to be charged for? Well, there's the now-ubiquitous "resort fee," although you may be surprised to find it tacked onto your bill at places you would think hardly qualify as a resort. Parking fees can run upwards of $50 - per night - in many major cities. According to this article in the Wall Street Journal, travelers are reporting an increase in the frequency and amounts of fees for using the fitness center, pool or Internet service.

Hotels are getting creative, slapping fees on everything from the in-room safes (whether you use them or not) to the valet and bellman service. And who can forget the "energy surcharges" of years past that gave so many travelers agita? Well, despite the fact that the price of oil has dropped substantially from its high last summer, some hotels are still insisting that you help them shoulder the cost of their electric bill.

Even if you think you're smart enough to avoid that minefield of markups, the minibar, think again. At some hotels, even if you just rifle through the minibar offerings -- even if you put them back without so much as crinkling the cellophane wrappers -- motion sensors will record your movements and charge you for the uneaten items. If you're not the type of person who peruses your balance with a fine-toothed comb, you could wind up shelling out big bucks for goodies that never even passed your lips.

The one bit of good news in this frustrating scenario is that consumers' rights advocates have reported that you can complain your way out of many of these fees, especially if you catch them before you leave the property. It's a small consolation prize, though. It's bad enough having to scrimp and save just to take a well-earned vacation; you shouldn't have to fight to actually pay the rate you were promised.
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