(eTN) – The online review of the Phoenician started out glowingly.
The hotel and the grounds were “pristine” and the artwork “unbelievable,” the New York traveler wrote on TripAdvisor.com after a recent stay. The pools were beautiful, rooms spacious, the bathroom amenities generous.
Then came the “but.”
“The surprise for us was that everything had an additional fee,” the reviewer said, rattling off a $10-a-night Internet charge, $20 for the workout room and $26 a night for valet parking as examples. The headline on the review: “Everything is a la carte.”
Sticker shock is nothing new in the travel industry as any minibar junkie or airline passenger with an overweight bag knows.
But veteran business travelers and once-a-year vacationers alike still marvel at and regularly grumble about the disconnect between how much you pay for a hotel room and what’s included.
Stay at a moderately priced chain such as Hampton Inn or Courtyard by Marriott, and you get in-room Internet service included and often other freebies, such as breakfast and bottled water.
But check into a luxury resort in Arizona or any other vacation spot, and on top of the big-dollar rates, you will often pay extra for everything from room-service delivery to use of the gym.
Some resorts bundle them into a nightly “resort” fee that’s mandatory, others have a menu of fees or a mixture of both.
The irony is not lost on longtime travel-industry analyst and frequent traveler Henry Harteveldt. Last month, he stayed at a Hilton Garden Inn in New York and had free in-room Internet access.
“If I were to stay at a regular Hilton or a Waldorf-Astoria Collection (the luxury arm of Hilton that includes the Arizona Biltmore), it’s likely I would be charged,” he said.
Harteveldt, vice president and travel-industry analyst for Forrester Research, calls resort fees and related extra charges “obnoxious.”
“It is just stupid, it’s greedy, it’s mean,” he said. “It gets consumers’ vitriol just flowing.”
Andrew Stegen, general manager of the Arizona Biltmore Resort and Spa in east Phoenix, concedes the fees are “very, very controversial.”
He said the resort fields complaints about them, especially in the summer, when its room rates are cheaper and the fees appear out of proportion. But he said the volume of complaints has never approached a level where the resort would consider changing its policy. The resort prominently displays the fee during several steps of the online-reservations process.
The Biltmore’s nightly resort fee is $25, up from $20 less than two years ago. Room rates this winter are about $254 a night and up.
Stegen considers the fee, which covers in-room Internet access, use of the fitness center, free local calls and daily newspaper delivery, to be a good value. He says it is necessary because resorts are more expensive to run than no-frills chains. Stegen says the Biltmore instituted the package price several years ago so customers didn’t feel nickel-and-dimed.
“I travel, too, and I hate going to the fitness club and knowing I have to pay $20 to go for a run on the treadmill,” he said.
But what about folks who only use the gym – effectively paying $25 for that run on the treadmill – or don’t use any of the services covered by the fee?
“Most people use at least one of those things several times,” Stegen said.
The Biltmore doesn’t have the highest resort fee in the Valley. The luxury Boulders Resort & Golden Door Spa in Carefree charges $32.46 a night including tax, although it includes tips for bellmen, maids and other front-line staff as well as the standard offerings. Peak-season room rates start at more than $400 a night.
Managing director Michael Hoffmann said the resort sees the fee as a convenience for guests.
“From a customer perspective, you’re never scrambling for a dollar,” he said. “Isn’t that the worst part of traveling? You always have to have a wad of ones and a five in your pocket so you can take care of everybody.”
Hoffmann said he gets at most one or two complaints a year about the resort fee.
The Arizona Grand Resort, formerly the Pointe South Mountain, tells callers the resort fee of $16 a night covers “all the amenities of the resort,” including its popular water park.
Despite their defense of the fees, Harteveldt said hotel industry executives don’t like being on the receiving end of them either. At an industry conference in Phoenix last month, he said the chatter at the opening reception at the host hotel included complaints about its resort fee.
Ahwatukee technology consultant Bud Bates, who is on the road for business most weeks, gets particularly irked about charges for Internet access at full-service hotels.
He picked a small budget hotel in Frankfurt, Germany, over a Sheraton because the Sheraton was about triple the price and still charged nearly $20 a night for Internet service.
“I don’t like paying $300 and $400 a night for a hotel anyway, but when I do, I would expect that includes most of my services,” he said.
A recent guest at the Sanctuary Resort in Paradise Valley echoed those sentiments. In an otherwise positive TripAdvisor review on the tucked-away resort, the reviewer said, “If you are paying $600-plus a night, they should give you a few amenities, and I’m not talking about free electricity.”
Harteveldt bristles at the resort fee as extra revenue catchall. “If you’re going to a resort and paying hundreds of dollars a night, you are ostensibly paying for more than the privilege of sleeping there,” he said.
If travel demand cools with the weakening economy, Harteveldt hopes hotels and resorts revisit the fee parade. He said frequent travelers are well educated and don’t expect hotels to be charities. They simply resent being nickel-and-dimed.
“The same people who I hear complain about $5.50 bottles of water or $20 Internet access think nothing of paying hundreds of dollars per person for a round of golf at a resort’s golf course,” he said. “I think the hotels have to realize what it is that people value and what it is that people will (happily) pay for.”