It's Getting a Bit Cheaper for Guests to Phone Home : Fees: Many hotels are dropping some of those annoying phone charges.

TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

For years, travelers have been moaning about phone fees, and for good reason. Pick up your phone in many major hotels, and immediately you owe the hotel 75 cents or $1 for the privilege, no matter what kind of call you're making, no matter how near or far. At the pay phone in the lobby, the same call would cost a quarter, or nothing.

At last, it seems, the phone-charge complaints are being heard.

The most notable sign of that came on July 1, when 130 of the 244 Hilton Hotels in the United States abandoned their practice of charging 75 cents to $1 for each calling-card call, 800 call and collect call. The chain did not abandon its fees for local calls or directly dialed long-distance calls, which run 75 cents or $1 at most properties. But the new program, known as Free Access, has put pressure on the entire industry to examine telephone use fees.

"Our research says, 'Don't even think about charging me for long-distance calls,' " says Chris Cullen, communications director for Forte Hotels, which includes 500 Travelodges in North America. "People are looking at nickels and dimes these days."

Forte stopped charging fees for calling-card calls in March. The hotels also stopped charging for local calls, though only on an experimental basis.

After Hilton's July move, Marriott and Sheraton officials quickly made public pledges to review their own phone fee policies. But several weeks later, those chains haven't announced any changes in telephone service charges. Hyatt, meanwhile, has declared that the high costs of sophisticated hotel phone systems justify the fees, and that a hotel that stops charging phone fees will probably have to recapture the revenue by slightly raising rates on all rooms.

"We feel that the guests who use the service should pay for it," says Hyatt spokeswoman Carrie Reckert. The fee for calling-card and local calls at Hyatt's 105 hotels remains 75 cents per call.

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If you're going to make a lot of phone calls as a lodger, it pays to ask ahead about hotel phone fees, and be sure to make distinctions among calling-card calls, directly dialed long-distance calls, 800 calls and local calls. Many hotels may assess no fee for phone-card and 800 calls, but will add 25 cents to $1 to your bill for local or directly dialed long-distance calls. (Since early this year, federal law has required that hotels "unblock" their phone systems and allow lodgers to access the long-distance company of their choice.) Also, be forewarned that hotels define local calls in varying ways, and a standard seven-digit call from one end of the 619 area code to another 619 number 20-some miles away could carry a cost for being outside the hotel's immediate area.

If you must direct-dial a long-distance number from your room phone (rather than using a phone-card), or get operator assistance on a long-distance call, expect the call billed to your room to be as much as twice the typical residential long-distance rate. If your hotel charges more than you like and you want to circumvent the system, you might consider the lobby pay phones, but be careful you don't end up doing business with an expensive alternative long-distance company.

Besides Hilton and Forte, there are many hotels that allow various kinds of calls (except a directly dialed or operator-assisted long-distance number) for free. Ironically, the hotels that do so are usually budget chains, which also charge the lowest nightly rates. Three examples: the 214-property La Quinta Motor Inn chain, the 750-property Motel 6 chain, and the 350-property Hampton Inn Hotels chain.

La Quinta's director of communications, Ed Hildum, warns, however, that changes in the rapidly evolving telecommunication industry are likely to cost hotels more money in equipment upgrades and other costs in coming years. One way or another, Hildum says, hotels will be passing those costs along.

At Marriott, which counts about 700 U.S. properties, spokeswoman Catherine Boire reports that re-evaluation of phone fees "hasn't been resolved yet, but it has definitely moved to the front burner." Currently, most Marriotts charge 75 cents for calling-card calls and local calls.

The 270 U.S. hotels in the ITT Sheraton chain are still charging up to $1 for local and calling-card calls, but spokewoman Dolores Sanchez says Sheraton officials are reviewing their policies.

The international Choice hotel chain, which includes 110 Clarion properties, 600 Quality Inns, 1,200 Comfort Inns, 100 Rodeway properties, 60 Sleep Inns, 800 Econo Lodges and 150 Friendship Inns, in May began urging its franchisees in North America to cut out phone fees. So far, officials estimate, 25% of the 2,600 Choice properties in the United States are offering calling-card and local calls free.

At the 1,550 Holiday Inns in North America, guests pay no access fees on calling-card or 800 calls, but local calls carry varying fees.

Policies vary at the 1,400 Days Inns internationally, the 550 Howard Johnson properties internationally, the 650 Ramada properties in the United States, and the 1,000 U.S. Super 8 properties.

Fees also vary at the 1,900 Best Western hotels worldwide, but top officials are making free phone calls a perk for frequent guests. A company spokeswoman estimates that 1,200 Best Westerns now offer free calling-card and local calls to members of the chain's frequent-stay program, the Gold Crown Club International.

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