Watch out for these secret hotel charges

Sure, you could rent rooms through Airbnb or really trim travel costs by crashing on friends' couches during your next trip. But there's something special about staying in a hotel where someone makes your bed for you every day.

Unfortunately, those hotel bills can balloon fast, especially when inflated by unexpected expenses or steep fees. In fact, hotels collected $2.45 billion in fees in 2015, according to a study by Bjorn Hanson, a New York University professor and expert on the hospitality and tourism industry.

Even so, there are ways for cost-conscious travelers to protect their pocketbooks from surprise hotel charges. Here are some that could show up on your next bill, as well as some expert advice on how to avoid, reduce or dispute these hidden hotel fees.

Sneaky hotel fees and how to avoid them
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Sneaky hotel fees and how to avoid them

Hotel Occupancy Tax

Hotel occupancy taxes could appear on your bill under other names such as a hotel lodging tax, tourist tax, room tax or sales tax, according to Suiteness, an online booking platform with an inventory of luxury suites. These taxes, levied for each night’s stay in a hotel, funnel tourist dollars to state and local government coffers, and can add a little — or a lot — to your bill.

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How to Avoid the Hotel Occupancy Tax

While hotel customers can’t totally avoid these taxes, there are ways to cut costs. Lodging tax rates vary by city and state, so travelers who are flexible about where they stay can shop around for lower lodging taxes.

For instance, 2015 tax rates in Chicago came in at 16.22 percent compared with just 9 percent in its suburb of Aurora, Ill., according to a report from HVS Convention, Sports and Entertainment Consulting. Likewise, the 2015 tax rate in San Francisco was 16.25 percent compared with a rate of 14 percent across the Bay Bridge in Oakland.

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Resort Fees

These fees can cover amenities that many frequent travelers consider standard, such as high-speed internet access or use of computers and printers in a property’s business center. Beyond the basics, resort fees might give guests access to everything from mountain bikes to mixology classes, as does the $50 per room resort fee levied for each night’s stay at the Ritz-Carlton, Dove Mountain in Arizona.

But what if you have no plans to go on a guided morning walk or try out a group fitness class at the property’s Movement Studio?

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How to Avoid Resort Fees

Tristan Seymour, managing director for the hotel and bed and breakfast reservation site Lodging World, recommends researching resort fees early in your travel planning process.

“When booking a room, make sure to find out what sort of fees are charged, and ask if you will be charged even if you don’t use them,” he said. “When you receive your bill, make sure you go through it entirely and dispute anything you don’t agree with.’’

The site ResortFeeChecker is a good place to start when ferreting out fees.

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Housekeeping Fee or Mandatory Gratuity

Some hotels and resorts automatically add gratuities to guests’ tabs. For instance, the Atlantis Paradise Island resort complex in the Bahamas levies a mandatory gratuity of anywhere from $9.50 to $50 per person, per day, depending on the guests’ unit type and location within the property. So it makes sense to check who gets paid from that pool of dollars. 

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How to Avoid Extra Gratuities

Seymour understands the desire to leave tips for hard-working housekeepers and other hotel staffers. “However, some hotels automatically add a 5 to 10 percent housekeeping gratuity onto your bill,” he said. “So, before leaving any tips, check your bill first.”

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Early Check-In Fee

Many hotels will accommodate requests for an early check-in, but travelers shouldn’t assume that extra hour or so comes without a cost. For example, Treasure Island in Las Vegas offers priority check-in starting at 10 a.m. for $30 plus tax, according to the hotel’s website. It’s also worth noting some spots also levy a late checkout fee, with Treasure Island getting $30 plus tax from guests who linger past 11 a.m.

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How to Avoid Early Check-In Fees

Keani Aabel, who runs the travel blog keanitravel, recommends asking about early check-in fees before arriving at the front desk. Even if staffers won’t waive an early check-in fee, many hotels will at least hold your bags for free.

“I would advise to call ahead to warn the hotel of your early arrival,” she said. “With advance notice, they can check if there is a room available for you. If all else fails, hotels can hold your luggage while you grab lunch or a drink for your room to be ready." 

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Hotel WiFi Fees

Although many hotels offer free in-room WiFi, guests shouldn’t take it for granted. For example, SIXTY Beverly Hills in California charges $15 a day for wireless internet access. However, that fee is waived for those booking their rooms directly through the hotel’s phone or online reservation system.

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How to Avoid Hotel WiFi Fees

Seek out special offers and promo codes. For instance, SIXTY in Beverly Hills during June was advertising a summer sale on its site offering potential guests a 15 percent booking discount and free WiFi if they book directly through the SIXTY site.

Many hotel chains also offer free internet access to members of their rewards programs. One example is Marriott, which gives its rewards members free WiFi when they book directly through the company or participating hotel website and mention their Marriott Rewards number when making a reservation. This perk is one of the reasons Marriott has one of the best hotel rewards programs.

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Room Upgrade Fees

Upgraded rooms or club access can offer premium perks for travelers who want to treat themselves. For instance, the Island Club upgrade at the Island Hotel at Newport Beach gives guests access to amenities in the property’s 20th-floor lounge, including better breakfasts, as well as free snacks during certain times. Other perks, such as a dedicated concierge and curbside check in, come with the Island Club fee of $50 per day for up for two guests.

National chains such Sheraton offer some similar services through club lounges, and those creature comforts can be worth the cost for many customers. But don’t get stuck with an unwanted upgrade, said Houston-based travel agent Michelle Weller of retail travel agency Travel Leaders.

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How to Avoid Room Upgrade Fees

Hotels will occasionally offer upgrades at check in, and it can be easy for hurried and harried hotel customers to assume they’ll be completely free.

“Sometimes you get offered a free upgrade, but when you go to check out, the room rate goes up,” Weller said. “Always verify rates.”

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Safe Fee or Surprising Minibar Charges

Some hotels charge a fee for guests to stash stuff in the in-room safe. This often hidden fee is sometimes bundled into the resort fee. When it appears as a separate item, it typically adds a couple of bucks a night to your room rate. Likewise, some properties charge guests for items they remove from the in-room “refreshment center" or minibar.

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How to Avoid Safe and Minibar Fees

The safe fee can be difficult to dispute at checkout, according to Olga Maria Czarkowski, who operates the travel and lifestyle blog Dreams in Heels. It’s important to educate yourself about the hotel’s fees and address them even before entering your room for the first time.

“If there is a safe fee, and you don't plan to use the safe, tell them to lock it to avoid the fee,” she said.

Similarly, guests might want to request the front desk cut off access to the in-room refreshment center to head off any headaches at checkout time.

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Hotel Parking Fees

Valet parking fees are the norm at many hotels, especially those in prime urban locations. But some charge stiff self-parking fees, too. For instance, self-parking fees at the Hyatt Regency St. Louis at the Arch are $29 a day compared with $39 for valet service.

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How to Avoid Hotel Parking Fees

Hotel guests can rethink rental cars and opt for Uber or public transportation to avoid this expense. Shopping around for friendlier fees is another option.

For one, the self-parking fee at the Hilton at the Ballpark in St. Louis is $27 while the valet fee is $38. And nearby lots and garages offer significant savings to savvy travelers willing to walk a few extra blocks between their hotel and car.

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