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On the Spot: One very expensive hotel phone bill

Question: On June 19, a relative staying at the Andaz West Hollywood called to ask my wife and me to pick her up. We were in church so my wife had turned off her cellphone. Finally our family member got through, but when she checked out, she was shocked to find she was charged about $200 for nine less-than-one-minute phone calls that went to our voicemail. English is her second language, and she didn't question the charge. Any advice as to how we should proceed?

-- Paul Cross, Rancho Cucamonga

Answer: Hold the phone.

"It appears there may have been a glitch with the phone system," said Kim Okeson, who works in marketing communications for Andaz, adding that many of the calls "may not actually have gone through." Andaz is working with the customer to see if some of those charges can be dropped.

Hotel phones often are a hot button for travelers because the charges can seem disproportionately high, especially in this age of cellphones. It's easy to run up a big phone bill just by making a few calls, never mind long-distance or international charges. (And, for the record, I'm still steamed about a $50 call some years ago from my hotel in Amsterdam to Southern California that lasted all of one minute, but that's water under the canal bridge, I suppose.)

Some critics say that phones are just another revenue center for hotels. Andaz says that's not the case and that the system is a convenience whose charges are calculated based on what the hotel pays its telephone service provider. "We do not make a significant profit off our phone system," Okeson said.

Chihyung Ok, an assistant professor of hospitality management and dietetics at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kan., concurs, noting that phones may contribute as little as 2% to the hotel's revenue. Cellphones and other electronic communication methods (such as Voice Over Internet Protocol, or VoIP, provided by such companies as Skype and Vonage) have taken such a big bite out of income from phones that "many hotels are still trying to justify the initial investment of having a telephone system," Ok said.

It helps to understand how a hotel's phone system charges before you even pick up the receiver. Andaz says its system tracks by the minute and that costs are based on where you're calling and time of day.

The rules are a bit different at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza Los Angeles. There, a completed call is one that lasts more than six rings, said Erika Garcia-Lavyne, director of public relations for the hotel. "Long-distance direct dial is billed at AT&T long-distance, operator-assisted rates, plus a hotel surcharge of 75 cents access charge, and 25 cents a minute," she said.

The solution is easy: Don't use the phone in the room unless you have to or unless you know for sure that you will not be charged. (Ask the front desk.) Cellphones? Yes. Skype or similar? Yes (although you may be charged an Internet connect fee). And phones in the lobby may be free, Ok noted.

See? Talk still can be cheap. Just don't get your signals crossed or you'll pay the price.

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