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No More Cheap Thrills in These Establishments : Hotels: Those incidental expenses can rapidly add up when you’re on the road. Beware of hidden taxes and cleverly disguised surcharges. You may even be charged for having a bed in your room.

You’re on a two-day business trip. You’ve paid $250 for a one-way airline ticket across the country. Once in the air, if you want to watch the movie, you have to cough up an additional $4.

You’ve checked into your hotel. In your room you phone a friend who lives in that city. It’s a local call that lasts less than three minutes. You are charged $1.75.

You’re thirsty. A small refrigerator contains a selection of soft drinks. You choose one of the cans. You are charged $2.

Upon leaving the city you return your rental car. You have logged only 80 miles, and drop the car off with more than half a tank of gas. You were originally quoted a rate of $49 a day, and you have had the car for less than a full day.

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But when you get your bill you have been charged nearly $100. There are three reasons: taxes, an extra surcharge the company added because its airport rent had been increased, and a refueling charge of nearly $14 for less than five gallons of gas.

What do you do? Chances are you sheepishly pay the bill.

You are now on the growing list of consumers who have been abused by the world of hidden charges, of delayed and excessive additions to your bill, of insulting coverages to nonexistent “all-inclusive” rates. It is a world of hidden taxes, surcharges and unexpected duties suddenly levied upon you.

Simply put, it is the expensive and sometimes unethical practice of nickel-and-diming travelers.

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These are the charges that engender ill will and cause the most number of complaints, and yet these are the charges that don’t seem to go away.

Nickel-and-dime charges exist virtually everywhere in the travel industry.

For example, at some Bangkok hotels it is more expensive to have a shirt laundered than it is to go downstairs, walk a few feet outside the hotel and buy a new shirt.

It is substantially cheaper to get a roll of quarters and use the pay phone in most New York hotels to make five local calls than it is to make one local call from your room.

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And while some hotels tell guests about these outrageous telephone surcharges, hardly any hotel reveals to guests the expensive “bed tax” levied each night, over and above the quoted room rate.

For example, if you’re traveling to Atlanta, better add 13% to the basic quoted rate of your room. In San Francisco its 11%, in New York City 13.25%. Overseas, it’s even worse. In Venice the bed tax is a staggering 19%. And Bangkok wins a prize at 21%.

(I called two hotels in each of these cities and asked for the rate of a standard room. Not one hotel bothered to tell me about the bed tax. Thus, if I was quoted $150 a night for a room in Italy, I’d really be paying $178.50, but wouldn’t know it until it came time to pay my bill.)

Then there is the case of the hotel mini-bar. As a frequent traveler I expect to pay if I consume any of the items in the mini-bar. Usually, I don’t succumb to the temptation, but that doesn’t mean I don’t get charged.

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If I am in a hotel for more than a few days I will usually stop at a store and buy some juice, diet sodas and fruit. I will put these in my mini-bar refrigerator. On more than a few occasions, upon checking out of the hotel I discover I have been charged for simply removing items from the mini-bar to make room for my purchases.

One of the worst--and most insulting--examples of nickel-and-diming is the hotel room safe. When a hotel puts a small safe in your room, what is the hotel management telling you?

On a subliminal level, the hotel management is admitting that it either a) doesn’t trust its staff, or b) doesn’t trust its security system . . . or both. And then, to add the insult: The hotel charges you an average of $3 a day for the privilege of using a service it should already be providing as part of your room rate.

Worse, the hotel room safe does not take the place of the hotel safe deposit boxes in the lobby when it comes to the question of liability. If you lose something out of the room safe that you’ve essentially rented, you have no recourse.

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Some hotels have discovered an additional way to nickel-and-dime guests: They charge guests to receive a fax. The hoteliers who do this insist that they add the charges (sometimes as much as $2 per page) because of the “labor” costs of receiving the fax, tearing it off the machine and delivering it to the guest.

But in my book, the all-time champ for nickel-and-diming goes to the Best Western Outlet Inn in Williamsburg, Va. When guests check out, they find they’ve been charged an additional $2.50 a day simply for having a phone in their room.

“Some of these charges are absurd,” says Jacques Camus, general manager of the Westwood Marquis Hotel. “You can’t run a hotel like a taxi cab. The meter can’t be running all the time. And besides, it defeats the definition of what a hotel is all about. Should we now charge extra for electricity in the room? Or running water?”

What can you do about these charges? You can complain vehemently. And, if you do it loud enough and often enough, you’ll see some of the charges removed from your bill--now and in the future.

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If you find phone charges that seem outrageous or simply false, complain to the manager. Your loyalty and repeat business is what keeps hotels open. More often than not, these charges will be deducted from your bill before you check out.

If you’re paying by credit card and the hotel refuses to adjust your bill, you can always dispute the charges later with the credit card company. You can play the nickel-and-dime game, too.

Slowly, some hotels are starting to get the message. Last year Stouffer Hotels and Resorts admitted that surcharges for most phone calls billed to guests were a rip-off, and dropped the extra tariffs for guests making toll-free calls from their rooms, or for long-distance calls that guests made using their own credit cards.

In London the Hyatt Carlton Tower, which had been charging guests a minimum of 2 to receive a fax, has ended the practice.

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“So many guests complained,” says Manager Robert Dawson, “that we’ve eliminated any charge for receiving a fax. The guests were right. It was an unfortunate and unnecessary charge.”

One hotel chain has even gone further. If you join the Marriott Courtyard Club (it costs $10 a year), when you stay at a Marriott Courtyard hotel you get unlimited local calls with no service charges, a free morning newspaper and the best deal of all: no fax charges. Not just for receiving faxes, but for sending them, anywhere in the United States.

The Marriott program is almost too good of a deal. For my money (and based on the cost of telephone charges these days), if I have a long fax to send, it’s almost worth it to check into the hotel just to use the fax machine.


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