Checking into a hotel room requires a whole host of steps: collecting luggage, receiving the key, signing the requisite paperwork.
Sometimes that paperwork is provided through a third-party travel booking agency, with the buyer sparing it just a quick glance before submitting the documents. Occasionally those documents are filled out in person, where hotel guests, frequently road-weary and anxious to fall into a soft bed, also merely skim the paperwork.
Both scenarios can lead to unpleasant surprises on a checkout statement.
“Oftentimes, when you check in, [hotel staff] will have you sign papers,” said Ivy Ngo, an attorney with Franklin D. Azar and Associates in Colorado Springs who handles class-action lawsuits. “I travel a lot for work, and I don’t think I’ve ever actually paid attention to the fine print because now I’m just used to assuming that no matter what price you pay, you’re paying more.”
Les Pedersen, vice president of sales and marketing at Garden of the Gods Resort and Club, said the establishment takes great care to outline its fees so that potential guests can avoid unexpected charges.
“We pride ourselves on offering a world-class resort and wellness experience. In doing so, the guest experience is our very first priority — from the moment they book, throughout their stay, until they leave our property,” Pedersen said in an emailed statement. “Therefore, we are very transparent and communicative about our fees, both in the direct booking experience and through a third-party system.”
At least one hotel chain is currently facing backlash from customers who say they aren’t so transparent. Earlier this month, the District of Columbia sued Marriott International Inc., claiming mandatory resort fees at its hotels are “illegal and deceptive,” Reuters reported July 9.
Globally, Marriott owns, manages or franchises at least 189 hotels that charge resort fees ranging from $9 to $95 per day, according to the lawsuit, ABC News reported.
Resort fees — sometimes called destination or amenity fees — are displayed separately from hotel room prices and are often lumped with taxes, giving the impression they are government-imposed, Reuters reported. These charges often only become evident to consumers near the end of the booking process, according to Reuters.
Examples of common amenities hotels charge customers for include access to gyms, rooftop bars, swimming pools, casino credits, transportation, newspapers, and water bottles in rooms, and these charges sometimes are not clearly laid out to customers upon booking stays online or on guest folios, according to Skift Inc., a media company that provides news, research and marketing services for the travel industry.
READING THE FINE PRINT
For guests booking online, there are often links embedded into the documents sent by hotel staffers or the third-party agencies that consumers may not think to click, Ngo said.
“Generally on those type of class actions, I would look at all the marketing materials related to the rooms available at the hotel and at the terms and conditions — what you agreed to when you sign up for a hotel room,” Ngo said. “Unfortunately … often times there are links they will send you to that are embedded in the page that you would also potentially have to go to. … People sign away a lot of things that they don’t realize — whether it’s to buy something or to sell something, you don’t read the fine print.”
From a legal standpoint, a consumer is generally bound to any contract that they sign — including the fine print, Ngo said.
“As a plaintiff’s attorney, I feel like it’s an unconscionable impact to have it that way, but generally the law is yes, if you sign a contract, you are bound to that contract,” she said. “Depending on the judge or the court, some courts do hold that against them because the expectation is that you’re going to read it. But you and I both know that in the everyday world, nobody reads everything.”
Filling out this contract in person will not necessarily spare consumers from hidden fees either, as those potential guests typically have done less research, Ngo said.
“Either way, when you walk into a hotel or call [the front desk], there is probably even more room for it to be an illegal practice because it wouldn’t have been possible for you to see anything before you booked it,” she said.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
According to a report by SmarterTravel.com, the most deceptive fees are those that are mandatory but excluded from the listed room rate, and can as much as double what guests have to pay.
“The hotels give you a laundry list of services the fees supposedly cover, but paying, whether or not you use any of those services, is effectively a scam,” according to the report.
Hotels that charge resort fees almost always include Wi-Fi on the list of services the hidden charge will cover, but guests can often avoid a Wi-Fi fee by booking directly with the hotel, according to SmarterTravel.com.
Some hotels also establish separate housekeeping fees as mandatory, with certain facilities posting notices in rooms that guests are “expected” to tip housekeepers, SmarterTravel reported.
Early check-in and cancellation fees often are also included among these practices.
Whether a consumer has grounds for a lawsuit in these cases depends largely on the state’s consumer protection laws, which vary widely from state to state and set limits on companies and what they are allowed to do with their practices on consumers, Ngo said.
Colorado’s consumer protection laws are weaker than those in other states, Ngo said, which means a similar lawsuit might not have as much teeth in the Centennial State.
“Colorado is one of the places, unfortunately, that doesn’t have the strongest consumer protection laws,” said Ngo, who moved to the Springs last year from California, where she also practiced law. “We’re still trying to figure out how to work around them.”
Prior to this year’s legislative session, Colorado ranked No. 48 in a survey of the 50 states’ consumer protection laws, newly elected Attorney General Phil Weiser told the Colorado Sun in May.
The legislature passed the first major overhaul of the state’s consumer protection laws in decades, giving prosecutors and private attorneys much more leeway in bringing cases against companies with questionable business practices and opening the door for significantly larger settlements and judgments for consumers who have been wronged, the Sun reported.
One key change is that prosecutors are no longer required to prove that a business “knowingly” acted maliciously toward consumers, instead lowering the standard to “recklessly,” according to the Sun.