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Hotel deception: Getting worse

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© Dreamstime Modern luxury hotel reception counter desk with bell.

By Ed Perkins, Tribune Content Agency

"Why should the airlines have all the fun?" Apparently the hotel business gazed at the airlines' use of various fees and deceptions and decided to get into the act. As a result, the next time you book a hotel, you face some serious barriers to getting accurate and complete cost information before you buy -- and maybe not even then.

Not Really the Cheapest. Big hotel chains have been telling you that you booking through their own websites always gives you the lowest rate -- sometimes, maybe, but not always. Independent online travel agencies (OTA) such as Booking.com and Hotels.com can sometimes undercut the best deal you find through a hotel's system directly. OTAs undercut published rates by selling rooms at wholesale rates that are supposed to be reserved for air/hotel packages. The hotels don't like that, and they're trying to stop it, but so far the battle is a draw. Offering wholesale package-tour rates is an established practice in the hotel, package tour, and airline businesses, and OTAs have open access to those rates.

Still, booking direct is often your best bet. These days, several of the biggest hotel chains have started limiting free Wi-Fi to guests who book direct and belong to the chain's loyalty program.

Mandatory Fees. Mandatory fees are the worst: Hotels omit them in the prices they post initially, but you can't avoid them. You have to pay before you check out of the hotel. These are, of course, the notorious "resort" fees that have become all too common at vacation destinations. And they're pure deception: A hotel in Vegas wants to get, say, $80 a night for a room. Instead of giving that rate to the search engines, however, the hotelier posts room rate at $50. It makes up the $30 difference by calling it a "resort fee," which you have to pay. Typically, the hotelier lists services the fee supposedly covers, including Wi-Fi, admission to a fitness center, a business center and such. But that's blather: If you have to pay the fee, it should be included in the first posted price. Recently, this insidious practice has spread to big-city hotels, where terms such as "facility fee" replace "resort" when that would appear ludicrous. Mandatory valet parking is another way to squeeze more out of you.

Used to be Free. Don't be surprised when hotels channel airlines: calling services that used to be included in the rate "optional" and adding a fee for them. The most popular target so far is "housekeeping" services, but you're starting to see separate fees for room selection, open-air self-parking, early check-in and other preferences. This class of fees is newer than the resort fees, and unlike the resort fee, you can actually stay at the hotel without paying them -- if you don't mind having your bed unmade and no fresh towels, waiting around in a lobby for the official 3 p.m. check-in time to roll around, or parking on the street outside hotel property.

Whither Wi-Fi? I've seen several surveys recently that list free in-room Wi-Fi as the most important single feature of a hotel accommodation. Most budget chains recognize this, and they typically oblige. The upscale chains, however, seem to be using free Wi-Fi as a way to get you to book direct.

Any Hope? The Federal Trade Commission is supposed to police deceptive advertising everywhere but in airfares. Although mandatory hotel fees obviously flunk the FTC test that they be "per se" deceptive, the agency continues to avoid taking action. Currently, the best hope for consumers is in action by individual state attorney general offices.

The Take-Away. You have to assume that any hotel rate you see posted on any initial search display (1) is less than the best price you can find true price and (2) may not include free Wi-Fi and whatever else you need. You have to work harder to get at the real price and avoid a bad decision, but working harder is better than being gouged.

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