March 2, 2021

The Haggler: When Hotels Add Resort Fees to Priceline’s Price

Seventy-five bucks. Much of this went to the city and state — one surcharge was to chip in for a new convention center in Boston, another for “handling parking tickets and related debt” — and the rest went to Hertz. The company charged a “vehicle licensing cost recovery” fee and an energy surcharge, which Hertz started imposing “at the end of 2008 due to the increase in energy costs during that year,” according to a printout offered by a manager.

Hey, Hertz — 2008 was, like, three years ago. But the larger point is that if these fees are unavoidable, isn’t it sneaky for Hertz to state, as the company did when the Haggler clicked his way through Expedia, that the car costs $126 for the week? It seems so, given that the Haggler couldn’t drive out of Logan without coughing up an additional $75.

It’s enough to give you the totally crazy, deeply bonkers idea that companies are purposefully using fees as an underhanded way to juice revenue. Which brings us to a letter:

Q. Your recent column on Priceline brought to mind a different issue I have with the company and its “name your price” system of hotel booking. The price you name often doesn’t include fees that the hotel requires you to pay.

Let me give you an example, based on an experience last year. I bid $110 for a hotel on the North Strip of Las Vegas.  Priceline quoted me $110, plus the company’s own fees and taxes. I accepted and wound up at the Trump International.

But that hotel charges a $15-a-night “resort fee.” To everybody. Now, if that fee is unavoidable, why is the Trump International considered by Priceline to be a hotel that charges $110 a night? It’s like walking into a grocery store and seeing an item priced at $20, which you can’t actually buy unless you hand over $25.

Or maybe it’s worse, because at least at a grocery you can return that item to the shelves once you discover what it really costs. With Priceline, you find out about the added fees when you check in, and by then it’s too late. Priceline has already charged your credit card for your stay; the resort fee is charged by the hotel when you check out.

What is going on here? Is it beyond the technology of Priceline and the hotel it lists to include mandated fees? And is it acceptable — or legal — for Priceline to require a nonrefundable payment from customers before they know the actual price they will pay for the hotel?

Hank Youngerman

Morrisville, N.C.

A. It turns out that Mr. Youngerman is far from the first person to complain about a resort fee surprise after booking through Priceline. The issue was even fodder for a class-action lawsuit, filed in California in 2006 and alleging fraudulent inducement, breach of contract and an assortment of other no-no’s.

So none of the questions posed by Mr. Youngerman are new to Priceline. Which might be why a spokesman for the company, Brian Ek, needed only a few hours to e-mail the Haggler a response:

“We encourage hotels to include all mandatory fees (resort, safe, etc.) as part of their base rate,” Mr. Ek wrote. “To date, some do, and some don’t. Those that do charge these fees will charge them regardless of whether the room is being booked through an online travel agency like Priceline, or directly through the hotel.”

Mr. Ek also noted that Priceline alerts travelers to the possibility of fees — resort and otherwise — during the “name your own price” buying process. Which is true. In a heads-up that appears before you type in your credit card data, customers are alerted about “additional hotel specific service fees or incidental charges or fees that may be charged by the hotel to the customer at checkout.”

Clearly, Mr. Youngerman and many others don’t notice this warning. But it’s there, and in that previously mentioned class-action case, a judge determined that the alert was prominent enough to pass legal muster. Dismissing the lawsuit in 2010, Judge Carolyn B. Kuhl of the Superior Court of California, Los Angeles. described Priceline’s fee disclosure as “appropriately clear and conspicuous.”

Fair enough. But given that some resort fees are inevitable, why is it up to a hotel to decide whether to include them in the price listed by Priceline? A system like that seems to reward hotels that essentially disguise a portion of their price by labeling it a fee and punish those that don’t.

Shouldn’t Priceline just stipulate to hotels: “If you want to show up on our ‘name your price’ list, you need to give us your actual price. The whole thing. All in?”

Forget it, Mr. Ek says.

“Most of the hotels charging resort fees have told us that, operationally, they can’t bundle the resort fee into the base rate and then guarantee us that their front desk personnel won’t go ahead and charge it again at the front desk,” he wrote in a follow-up.

Weird, isn’t it? The world has made some amazing advances in recent years — new vaccines, Wi-Fi, the Slanket. But a resort fee that neither takes a traveler by surprise nor is charged twice — this dream eludes us. Why? The Haggler will pose this and other questions to some resort-fee-charging hotels in our next episode.

E-mail: Keep it brief and family-friendly, and go easy on the caps-lock key. Letters may be edited for clarity and length.

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