In its economic wake, the pandemic has scrambled travel fees. On one hand, it pushed airlines to drop change fees on most fares as virtually everyone who had a ticket in early 2020 looked to cancel. On the other, extra cleaning pushed fees up in vacation rental homes.
But the pandemic certainly isn’t the only source of added fees, especially when it comes to accommodations. Travelers have long complained about the shock of finding a deal on a hotel for $100 only to learn it doesn’t include the $45-a-night resort fee, a charge undergoing new legal scrutiny.
Though the dust has yet to settle on industry norms, the following are updates on unwelcome charges that travelers may see on their next lodging bill.
Exposing resort fees
According to the Federal Trade Commission, resort fees — supplements charged for access to things like swimming pools and Wi-Fi — have been around since 1997. The hotel industry defends them as a way to keep costs down for the individual by spreading them to everyone (think of one person paying the internet tab, versus sharing it with all guests).
Resort fees are not common. According to the American Hotel and Lodging Association, only 7 percent of hotels in the United States charge them. Still, they irk travelers, and earlier this year, the nonprofit advocacy group Travelers United sued MGM Resorts International for deceptively advertising rates that don’t include the mandatory fees, which can run $35 to $45 a day at its Las Vegas properties.
“Hotels have now made fees mandatory. If they’re mandatory, they should be included in the rate,” said Charles Leocha, the president and co-founder of Travelers United.
He added that during the pandemic, many hotels closed the sort of amenities, like pools, that resort fees were said to cover, yet continued to collect the fees. “In reality, there’s no connection,” he said.
In a win for consumers, Marriott International recently settled a lawsuit brought by Pennsylvania’s attorney general over its resort fees, agreeing to disclose fees along with rates. The hotel company responded that it will be “working over the next several months to update the room rate display in accordance with that agreement,” according to a statement.
Rather than bundling them into room rates, many hotels have made resort fees more explicit. The Phoenician, a Marriott Luxury Collection resort in Scottsdale, Ariz., for example, has a resort fee page on its website, indicating what guests get for their daily fee of $45 per room fee: Wi-Fi (worth, it states, $14.95), morning yoga ($30), one hour of tennis ($75), one hour of pickleball ($75), bikes ($35) and a craft beer tasting.
Hotels have yet to recover from the pandemic — according to the A.H.L.A., room revenue is expected to be down nearly $44 billion in 2021 compared to 2019 — potentially making fees more attractive.
“My research shows that large, full-service, resort hotels have been hurt particularly badly by Covid, and they’re still reeling from its effects,” wrote John W. O’Neill, a professor and the director of the Hospitality Real Estate Strategy Group at Pennsylvania State University, in an email. He added that some have adopted “partitioned pricing,” the kinds of fees that are mandatory but earmarked for a service, like baggage fees at airlines or resort fees that cover Wi-Fi and more at hotels.
For now, some have put fees on hold. The new Hilton Santa Monica Hotel & Suites, where amenities include a rooftop pool, has waived the standard resort fee, and charges $9.95 for basic Wi-Fi and $14.95 for faster service. It doesn’t plan to add the $39 charge until 2023, which will then also cover beach yoga and loaner bikes.
Mohonk Mountain House in New York’s Hudson Valley recently dropped its 15 percent administration fee. To cover the costs of rising wages and supplies, it plans to increase rates in 2022 by about 7 percent.
Cleaning more, paying more
Though intense cleaning has proved not nearly as important as mask-wearing and air circulation in preventing the spread of Covid-19, nonetheless fortified cleaning protocols remain in place across the accommodation spectrum. Among vacation rentals, the extra cleaning required of the pandemic took more time and materials, pushing guest fees up.
“When the world opened up again, the cleaning requirements needed to be improved,” said Joseph DiTomaso, the founder and chief executive of AllTheRooms, a vacation rental market analytics firm, which found that cleaning fees have been rising since 2017 but accelerated after October 2020, when travel began to rebound. “It’s an incremental cost being passed through.”
Guesty, a short-term rental management platform used by thousands of hosts, found that cleaning fees rose 12 percent in the United States since 2019.
Brian Egan, the chief executive of Evolve, a vacation rental company, said the rule of thumb for the fees, which are usually broken out on the bill, is about $50 a bedroom.
Rental platforms also charge a service fee to support their business operations. Airbnb says most guests pay less than 14.2 percent of the booking subtotal as its service fee.
In its advice to hosts, Vrbo recommends keeping fees to two or less and under 50 percent of the nightly rate, stating, “Excessive fees can greatly reduce a traveler’s likelihood of making a booking.”
Rental companies justify fees that incur costs for the host, such as pet fees to cover additional cleaning. But they flag bogus fees for things like linens and kitchenware.
“I always encourage consumers to go through all the way to where they can book it and it’s in the cart, as we say in the online world, so that you’re seeing the total cost,” Mr. Egan said. “Sometimes things are getting added in as you work toward the booking screen, so your first look at the nightly rate might not reflect the bottom line.”
Vacation home taxes
Taxes that vacation home renters pay vary widely by country, state, county and municipality. These are growing in some communities where the pandemic exacerbated a housing shortage as travelers, free to work or study anywhere, moved into short-term rentals.
In some mountain towns, more visitors renting homes and apartments made it harder for seasonal employees to find housing. In Colorado, several towns recently passed new taxes on short-term rentals. Residents of Crested Butte voted to increase a short-term rental tax to fund local housing initiatives. According to Airbnb’s page on Colorado taxes, several communities tax stays of less than 30 days. If you can stay for a month, you wouldn’t pay that tax.
Short-term renters may expect to see more of these taxes as the playing field between hotels and rentals levels out and destinations seek to remedy housing shortages. New York City, for example, recently passed a bill that would require short-term rentals to be registered with the city as it grapples with a housing crisis.
“This is nationwide, and it’s been the case for a while, but the focus on lodging tax has increased a lot in the last five to 10 years as the industry itself has mainstreamed,” said Mr. Egan of Evolve.
Travelers ultimately are in the driver’s seat when it comes to fees. Most hotels don’t charge a resort fee, though travelers may give up extras often covered by the fee, including Nespresso in the room and free use of bicycles. The website ResortFeeChecker.com lists hotels with fees in popular resort destinations and what the charges include.
Most all-inclusive resorts live by their labels. Palace Resorts, which operates 10 all-inclusives in Mexico and Jamaica, does not charge a resort fee though it offers amenities like water parks and kayaks. Guests staying five nights or more have a Covid test for their return home included.
If your hotel has a free loyalty club, join it to gain access to perks. The new Virgin Hotels New Orleans, where amenities include a swimming pool and fitness center, does not charge its guests a service fee, and membership in its loyalty club, which is free, includes complimentary cocktails during a daily “Spirit Hour.”
Look for a break on fees from independent hotels unaffiliated with major brands. The boutique RT Lodge in Maryville, Tenn., for example, includes breakfast and Wi-Fi without an extra fee. On the other end of the size spectrum, the lavish Breakers in Palm Beach, Fla., also forgos resort fees.
Don’t like a fee? Speak up. The tent-based Terramor Outdoor Resort in Bar Harbor, Maine, dropped its $10 a bundle charge for firewood — now complimentary — in response to guest feedback saying that campfires were part of the appeal of staying there.
For vacation home renters, longer stays amortize the one-time cleaning fee, and many properties provide discounts for rentals of a week or a month. At a cabin in Redcliff, Colo., longer-stay discounts run up to roughly 20 percent on the rental charge, a generous incentive. Most discounts that turned up on a spot check around the country, such as a log cabin in Michigan, were closer to 10 percent.
Even then, read every notice as you click through during booking. To fulfill a city requirement, an apartment in Venice on Airbnb, for example, charges 4 euros a person each night for a maximum of five nights, which must be paid in cash.
Elaine Glusac writes the Frugal Traveler column. Follow her on Instagram: @eglusac.
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