Two words that keep tricking Aussies
It's one of the most deceptive - and despised - fees on the planet and it's spreading like a festering disease through the accommodation industry in a destination much-loved by Australian travellers.
I vividly recall when I first encountered this outrageous rip-off during a road trip through western America a few years ago. While organising a stay in Las Vegas I had been pleasantly surprised to discover that you can score some seriously suave hotel rooms in the glitzy, notorious tourist playground for a relative bargain.
I paid in full in advance for a "deluxe" room perched high in a popular hotel just off the famous Strip. There was a sense of relief knowing everything had been taken care of prior to stepping on the plane.
Or so I had thought.
While everything went smoothly during my stay, it was once I returned home that the trouble started. As I perused my bank account an anomaly caught my eye; a few hundred dollars had vanished.
I was confused, as it had been deducted by the hotel chain I had stayed in at Vegas, the one I had paid for prior to my trip.
It was strange as the company had even acknowledged at the time of booking that all charges had been covered, with the first line of my emailed itinerary announcing in large font: "Your booking is confirmed and paid for in full."
I hadn't used the mini bar, made any calls or ordered room service. So what extras could they possibly be charging me for? Then, as I dug deeper towards the end of the T&Cs in the hotel's email, under the nitty gritty of their cancellation policy and far away from where the total price of the stay was highlighted, I spotted two words: Resort fee.
Wait, what's that? Prior to travelling to America, I had never heard of such a charge before.
I discovered that this is an extra fee charged daily to cover supposed resort amenities, such as use of the pool, Wi-Fi and gym, for example. But I wondered, could its real purpose simply be to help the hotels make an extra buck? Why was it not included in the per-night cost of the room, or clearly displayed and added onto the total?
What this Vegas hotel had done is actually an illegal tactic in Australia - all mandatory fees must be included in a single total price. The single total cost displayed prominently in the hotel email failed to include the resort fee. And yes, it's good practice to read all the fine print in the T&Cs, however a consumer would not reasonably expect to find an extra fee not previously mentioned in the total price, buried well below.
It's simply deceiving. It appears to be a tricky way for hotels to charge more for a room, without having to actually raise the nightly rate. Almost like they are charging two room rates, for one night.
This fee can end up costing more than the room itself, and has the potential to add hundreds to the cost of your holiday. It proves quite a shock for unsuspecting travellers who are then forced to figure out a way to cough up the extra money they had no idea they would be charged. Even when marked clearly within the advertised price at the time of booking, many guests are left stunned by how quickly this extra fee adds up.
And now, it's proving difficult to escape this charge in some destinations.
While resort fees are banned in most countries, in America there's no specific, enforced legislation banning them. Lately, this curious fee is not only skyrocketing in cost but is also spreading across tourist hot spots such as Miami, San Francisco and New York, and sometimes under different names such as "facility fee" and "destination fee".
Some resorts in Mexico, the Caribbean and even Canada now also charge these fees.
The situation seems to be spiralling out of control. Now, almost to add insult to injury, some accommodation providers are also trying to charge these fees per person, per night. What's more, some of these places are definitely not resorts, but are relatively plain inner-city hotels.
According to the website ResortFeeChecker.com, at least 122 hotels in Vegas charge a resort fee or similar mandatory fee, 197 in Miami, 157 in New York, 201 in Orlando, 105 in Hawaii, 73 in Phoenix, 55 in San Francisco and 49 in Palm Springs. That's a dizzying number of places.
Bjorn Hanson, an adjunct professor at the New York University School of Professional Studies Jonathan M. Tisch Center for Hospitality and Tourism, has studied such fees in depth and told the New York Times that most of the money goes directly to hotels' bottom lines.
Mr Hanson said one reason some guests are willing to cough up the cash for such fees is because these days they are so used to airlines slugging them extra for everything from bottled water to baggage check-in.
"The hotel industry is looking at the airline model and trying to increase revenue opportunities," he said.
However, there are also many, many unhappy guests. Hundreds of travellers have shared their outrage over the fee on social media, and confusion over what exactly they are paying for. Some simply believe it's a scam.
University of Chicago professor Harold Pollack has also expressed his indignation about the dishonesty.
So widespread is the fury that there's even a Twitter account purely dedicated to naming and shaming companies taking part in this practice, called Kill Resort Fees, which argues: "Resort fee should be in the dictionary as a definition of the word scam."
Meanwhile, The Washington Post writer Catherine Rampell is on a mission to expose the deceit: "I've started keeping track of the bogus price obfuscating 'resort fees' hotels charge, and how hotel staff justify them," she wrote on Twitter.
"Today I was charged a 'facility fee'. I asked what it was for, and was told 'it's a fixed fee that covers hotel services'. Like what? 'In-room shoeshine kit'."
Others questioned whether such fees threaten to destroy previously loved destinations.
Ultimately, it's clear that few people like surprises that end up costing them money. Hotels simply need to tell us upfront, clearly, the total price. Don't try to slip in an extra fee and risk tainting what may have been an otherwise great experience.
WHAT CAN YOU DO IF YOU'RE HIT WITH A RESORT FEE?
Consumer advocates Choice says the bottom line is that the total price hotels advertise must include all fees, including resort fees. This only applies to Australia, however.
"Any extras such as credit card fees or breakfast should be disclosed to you before being charged, and should be avoidable if they weren't included in the initial advertised price," a Choice spokesman said.
"Hotels and other accommodation providers need to advertise their prices and fees in a transparent way. This means that businesses can't do what's called 'drip pricing', where they advertise a price that's only part of the total known costs, and then add extra inescapable fees throughout the booking process.
"For example, if a hotel advertised rooms at $150 a night plus booking and resort fees, the total quantifiable price, which would include the booking and resort fees, would need to be advertised just as prominently."
They advise first trying to resolve any issues directly with the hotel, or the booking agent. If that fails, you can lodge a complaint with the ACCC or state-based consumer affairs body - but this is only if you've booked through an Australian company or site.
If you've booked with an overseas hotel and have no luck disputing it with them, contact your bank and request a charge back if you believe money was incorrectly taken from your credit card.