Resort fees fall under the category of "nuisance" surcharges because they're usually so insignificant that they're not worth fighting. And travel companies know it, which is one reason they keep piling 'em on.
But what happens when these extras rise to the level of a major expenditure?
Timothy Williams wants to know. He's visiting Las Vegas for 27 days while he closes on a home, and needed a hotel. So he clicked on Hotwire.com (www.hotwire.com), which offers discounts on accommodations but doesn't reveal the hotel until you've made a nonrefundable purchase.
Williams ended up with a room at the Palace Station Courtyard, which like a lot of Las Vegas resorts has a mandatory resort fee that covers amenities not included in the regular room rate. The Palace's is $14.99. Per night.
"So I've already paid $800 for the 27 days," he says. "Now with the resort fees tacked on, I'm going to have to pay another $450 in resort fees."
Williams says he was completely unaware of the resort fee.
"It doesn't show you the hotel," he says. "I don't remember it showing me about the possibility of resort fees."
I checked with Hotwire, and a representative showed me two screenshots in which the possibility of the fee was disclosed. Below the hotel listing, Hotwire displays a warning: "This hotel charges a resort fee," and then refers you to another page. However, it does not include the exact fee, which is an industry standard.
A Hotwire representative says the company is only doing what other online travel agencies do. "A vast majority of hotels exclude the resort charge from the daily rate," says Garrett Whittemore, a Hotwire spokesman.
But resort fees are particularly troublesome for sites like Hotwire and Priceline, which don't reveal the name of the hotel until you've paid for it. Because, while it's an industry-wide practice to exclude the mandatory resort fee (which shouldn't be happening, anyway) these so-called "opaque" sites add another layer of confusion, because you don't know exactly where you're booking a room. And the sites can't, or won't, tell you what the exact resort fee will be.
Ideally, hotels would either give you an "all in" rate or allow you to opt out of the fee. But we don't live in an ideal world.
I asked Hotwire about the specifics of Williams' case.
"We verified that all of this information was included for his property, the Palace Station Courtyard," says Whittemore. "In speaking with Timothy, it sounds like he may have missed this information when booking, and may have also been unfamiliar with the widespread nature of resort fees in Las Vegas overall."
But there's good news for Williams: Hotwire ran a few numbers, comparing its base rate against other retail sites, and found that even after adding a $14.99 daily resort fee, the combined cost was less than if he'd bought it elsewhere.
"Timothy paid $26 a night with Hotwire, while the cheapest retail price for those same stay dates at the time was $54 a night, not including the resort fee," says Whittemore.
It gets even better. Hotwire also offered Williams a $100 credit, and the resort upgraded him to junior suite while he was in town.
But Williams remains troubled by the resort fee, the way it was disclosed, and what might happen to others if they should encounter it.
"Hotwire says they listen to their customers, so we'll see," he says. "My guess is, nothing will change."
Christopher Elliott is the author of "Scammed: How to Save Your Money and Find Better Service in a World of Schemes, Swindles, and Shady Deals" (Wiley). He's also the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the co-founder of the Consumer Travel Alliance, a nonprofit organization that advocates for travelers. Read more tips on his blog, elliott.org or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Christopher Elliott receives a great deal of reader mail, and though he answers them as quickly as possible, your story may not be published for several months because of a backlog of cases.