If you think hotels will never stoop to the level of airlines -- charging extra for anything that isn't bolted down -- maybe you've never heard of easyHotel (www.easyhotel.com).
Sure, rooms at this cut-rate European hotel chain are cheap (about $35 a night) but if you need anything extra, like maid service, a fresh towel or a TV, it'll cost you. Add it all up, and your stay costs closer to $50 a night, which is less of a bargain.
American hotels, long envious of the so-called "ancillary" revenues that they extract from guests by quoting a deceptively low base rate and then piling on mandatory extras, are watching easyHotel carefully. They're no strangers to fees, but charging guests for housekeeping and TVs definitely crosses a line. Many are hoping customers will buy it.
Do we really want to live in an à la carte world?
It's enough to deal with mandatory tips, room safe fees and concierge fees. But towels? TV sets? Room service? What's next, a fee for a bed?
Hey, don't laugh. Two decades ago, if I'd suggested airlines might some day charge for the first checked bag, or to make a reservation, or for soft drinks, you probably would have dismissed it as the uninformed conjecture of a cub reporter. If I'd said it might set you back $150 to change an airline ticket or that you'd have to pay another $50 for an exit row seat -- a seat, by the way, that by law must have more legroom -- you would have said I was nuts.
But look at us now. We live in crazy times. And hotels, my friends, are next. Unless we do something now.
Inns are becoming like airlines, but we can do something about it.
Sorry, Your Room is Nonrefundable
One of the worst airline-isms the hotel industry has copied involves nonrefundable rooms, and specifically the disclosure of its terms. William Chiles booked a room in Miami recently through an online travel agency and had to cancel. "Silly me," he says. "I did not realize, in the fine print, that it was classified as nonrefundable." Neither the hotel, nor the online agency, offered him any hope of refund, even though he canceled well in advance of his visit.
Like airlines, hotels have increased the number of nonrefundable rooms while at the same time apparently decreasing the disclosure of these critically important conditions. All the while, hotel guests have seemed to go along with these new, customer-unfriendly conditions.
You'll Pay for that Pool
Andrea Gleason was infuriated when she checked out of the Monte Carlo Las Vegas Resort and Casino recently. The hotel had added a $9.50-a-day "resort fee" for, among other things, the use of a pool. "This charge is made even when booking a complimentary room through the slot clubs," she says. "Some of the agents will inform you of the fee at the time of booking, but not all of them. This makes the complimentary room not so complimentary." (The hotel denies the fee is for the use of the pool, but says it covers bottled water, newspapers, Internet access and fitness-center access.)
Now, asking guests to pay extra for the pool makes about as much sense as selling an airline seat that doesn't include a piece of checked luggage. Which is to say, none at all.
That "Free" Bottle of Water Will Cost You
Just like some low-cost airlines, many hotels that used to offer free bottles of water and other refreshments to their guests now have "unbundled" that amenity. And those bottles will cost you. Worse, some hotels aren't exactly up front about it and charge you in a deceptive way. Traci Fox, a college instructor in Philadelphia, was at a casino in Connecticut when she saw a few bottles and snacks on the dresser. That's when she noticed the price and the sensors. "You get charged when you lift an item," she says. "Dirty pool. I bet they just sit there and pray for you to stumble in drunk one night."
Some airline ancillary fees are similar, such as those that require you to pay extra for a seat reservation or a "convenience fee" to pay by credit card.
You Say Two-Star, We Say Five-Star
Perhaps one of the most disheartening airline strategies the hotel industry seems to have borrowed is the practice of cutting costs until there's almost nothing left. They say the belt-tightening helps them stay competitive, but we know better. They're just squeezing every last penny of profit out of their planes -- or properties. While airlines neglect their staff, facilities and the inside of their planes, hotels have found other ways of paring their expenses.
Margaret Juergensmeyer, a biosafety officer from Chicago, remembers one Washington hotel that turned off the heat during a cold snap in May. "My room, which had ripped carpet, torn wallpaper, and cigarette burns in the furniture -- not what I expected for $225 a night -- was warmer than being outdoors, but not much," she said. "I played with the thermostat, but the fan only blew cool air. I went to the front desk, and was told that the entire hotel had its heat shut off for the spring, and that it was 'corporate policy' and couldn't be undone."
This reckless cost-cutting only hurts the company doing it, in the end. In the meantime, it irritates -- and drives away -- customers like Juergensmeyer.
It sure looks as if hotels are borrowing a page or two from the airline playbook. They're adding unpopular policies, new fees and cutting amenities. Question is, can anything be done to reverse this unfortunate trend? Or are we all destined to stay at an easyHotel knockoff in the future?
Perhaps not. Unlike airlines, we have a choice in the hotel we stay in. We're not down to two or three big players. Instead, there are tens of thousands of hotels regulated by the states. So while hotels would love to be more like airlines in some ways, they never will be like them in others. Thank goodness.
Here's what that means to you: It's still possible to walk away from a hotel that isn't treating you right. You're still in control. You can prevent this from getting any more out of hand.
It's up to you.
Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the host of "What You Get For The Money: Vacations" on the Fine Living Network. E-mail him at email@example.com.
(c) 2010 Christopher Elliott. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.