Robert Kraus encountered the worst junk fee ever on a recent visit to Washington, D.C. That's when his hotel added a surprise $20 "Daily Mandatory Destination Charge" to his bill.
A Daily Mandatory what?
Yeah, that's just a fancy new word for a resort fee. Kraus' surcharge covered food and beverage credit, bike rental and "free" internet. But Kraus, a meeting planner from Miami, said this one was different: The hotel had cleverly repackaged it as a mandatory tax.
"They said they had no control over the fee," he said. "I pointed out there is no mandatory destination tax and that they can very much drop this ridiculous fee."
Check out Elliott Confidential, the newsletter the travel industry doesn't want you to read. Each issue is filled with breaking news, deep insights, and exclusive strategies for becoming a better traveler. But don't tell anyone!
Those annoying hotel charges were supposed to disappear after the government declared war on junk fees earlier this year. Instead, hotels have returned fire in the junk fee war by adding surprising new extras. Customers are fighting them in the courts and Congress, but there are also ways of killing the fees one at a time.
The average hotel now charges a mandatory daily resort fee of $26, up 3% from last year, according to Randy Greencorn, publisher of ResortFeeChecker.com,
"Hotels have gotten creative in their terminology," he said. "A resort fee is sometimes called a destination fee, administrative fee, cleaning fee, service fee or a utility fee. Some hotels now charge towel fees, bed sheet fees and concierge fees. These are all mandatory fees on top of the room rate and taxes."
You can do this! Pro travel advice on surviving summer 2023
How can airlines curb bad behavior? Start by providing better service.
Wait, aren't hotel fees going away?
Hang on. Didn't the Biden administration declare war on junk fees like Kraus' daily mandatory destination charge earlier this year? Yes, it did. But instead of backing off and quoting an all-in rate, some hotels have doubled down on the extras. Even proposed legislation that would ban resort fees has not deterred the hotel industry from piling on more fees.
"Some hotels are continuing to drive up the average daily room rate using hidden fees," said Tim Hentschel, CEO of HotelPlanner.com. The most common fees this summer have been cleaning surcharges and resort fees – ahem, I mean, destination fees.
"Sometimes the fee is verbally disclosed to the guest at check-in, but other times a guest might not see it unless they look closely at their check-out invoice," he adds.
Hotel junk fees come in all shapes and sizes, ranging from daily surcharges for items that used to be included in your hotel bill (like towels or "free" internet usage) to new ones like a "worker protection fee," which supposedly covers the cost of a new law that increases hotel workers’ minimum wage.
No one knows how many hotels charge "junk" fees. But based on the number of complaints I've received as a consumer advocate, and some of the lawsuit activity in recent months, it's safe to say many hotels are adding junk fees during periods of peak demand and high occupancy levels. This has left travelers infuriated.
Will hotel guests grow to 'love' junk fees?
Hotels didn't just sneak in more fees after the administration said it would fight them. At least one hotel did so openly. In a highly unusual move, the Shay Hotel in Culver City, California, sent me a news release claiming it had developed a destination fee that opens a door "to a world of exclusive experiences" and "that guests will genuinely love."
For $30 a night, it includes two single-ride Metro passes per stay, a daily drop-off service via rideshare service within a 2-mile radius of the hotel, access to a yoga studio, "free" electric vehicle charging and "complimentary" domestic phone calls.
If the nightly resort fee (sorry, destination fee) were optional, that might be a pretty good deal. So I checked with the hotel and was disappointed to learn that the $30 fee is mandatory. So technically, neither the phone calls nor the EV charging is "free."
The Shay's resort fee promotion is remarkable not because of its claim to make its guests love resort fees (it won't) but because of its audaciousness. It comes only a few months after the White House pledged to kill hotel resort fees. It also reveals the hotel industry's attitude toward junk fees. Administration officials can talk all they want – and hotels will keep raising their fees and adding new ones.
The Shay Hotel did not respond to a request for comment.
'People became more entitled': Enough with bad tourists ruining everyone's experience
No one likes a seat kicker. Stop touching the airplane seat in front of you.
Amid junk fee fury, guests are taking hotels to court
Hotel guests are frustrated with the lack of meaningful relief from junk fees, so they've taken matters into their own hands.
This summer, a group of hotel guests filed a lawsuit in Los Angeles Superior Court against several Marriott hotels, alleging that daily fees called “Hotel Worker Protection Ordinance Costs Surcharge” in Los Angeles area hotels violate California's unfair competition and consumer protection laws.
The Hotel Worker Protection Ordinance is a new city law that requires hotel employers to compensate housekeepers if they are required to clean more than a certain number of square feet in one eight-hour shift. It also prevents hotels from offering guests any incentive to decline daily room cleaning.
The lawsuit estimates that one Los Angeles Marriott would collect roughly $3.6 million a year from the fees. It alleges that these extra fees are confusing and misleading to customers and don't go towards the cost of compliance with the ordinance.
The courts have been busy with hotel fees, particularly resort fees. Two years ago, Marriott settled with the state of Pennsylvania over the disclosure of resort fees. As part of the agreement, the hotel agreed to prominently disclose the total price of a hotel stay, including the room rate and all other mandatory fees, on the first page of its booking website.
It's easy to see why hotel guests are so frustrated. In their view, hotels have stopped pretending that the fees are for anything other than profit.
That's what Catherine Lux, a marketing consultant based in London, noticed when she checked into a hotel in Miami recently. The mandatory "resort fee" didn't even include the cost of a beach umbrella (it was an extra $25).
"I'll never understand how they can justify charging so much extra for an umbrella instead of keeping guests safe from the sun as part of the already-extortionate and ridiculous resort fee," she said.
Unveiling skiplagging, other hacks for cheaper flights (and why should reconsider)
Leave the sweatpants at home. Why we need a dress code for flying.
Hotel junk fees will get worse before they get better
Why are hotels being so defiant? The Junk Fee Prevention Act, which would eliminate these bothersome surcharges, is unlikely to pass in an evenly split Congress, observers say.
"Hotels certainly won’t move to reduce these junk fees until they’re forced to by law or intense pressure from consumers," said Gillian Dewar, chief financial officer of Crediful, a personal finance website. "For the most part, consumers get irritated by these fees. But they accept them."
So that's it, then? The problem is us. We accept the fees, and the hotel industry interprets that as a green light to charge more.
Good news: You can fight junk fees – and win
Just because a hotel charges a junk fee doesn't mean you have to pay it. Here's how to avoid them:
Look before you book. The most ethical hotels include any mandatory fees as part of the room rate. The less ethical ones wait until the final screen – a practice called drip pricing – to tell you the all-in price. Either way, you should know exactly how much you'll pay for your hotel before you check in. If you don't, you have a compelling case for getting the fees removed.
Flash your card. Loyalty program members are often exempt from junk fees. If you're a member, let the hotel know. If you paid by credit card, you have another powerful tool for getting out of a junk fee. You can file a credit card chargeback and get the fee removed.
Call them out. Hotel owners are highly embarrassed when guests call them out over their resort fees. Even a low-level social media campaign is often enough to get these annoying extras removed from a bill.
Kraus, the meeting planner, stood his ground when confronted with a destination charge. He calmly explained that as a member of the hotel's loyalty program, he was exempt from resort fees – even if they'd been renamed destination fee.
"After much back and forth, they finally removed it from my bill," he said. "But wow! What will they think of next?"
Christopher Elliott is an author, consumer advocate, and journalist. He founded Elliott Advocacy, a nonprofit organization that helps solve consumer problems. He publishes Elliott Confidential, a travel newsletter, and the Elliott Report, a news site about customer service. If you need help with a consumer problem, you can reach him here or email him at email@example.com.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Junk fees are going by different names: How to fight them, and win