Hotels are supposed to be restful oases away from the stresses of the road. Instead, they often are sources of stress for travelers. Some hotels are not as appealing as their ads or Web sites suggest... many pad their bills... and/or they suffer from security problems or bedbug infestations.
What hotel guests need to know...
Online hotel reviews and descriptions often are not what they seem. Hotel managers -- and the marketing companies they hire -- sometimes pretend to be travelers and write phony rave reviews about their own hotels on travel Web sites such as TripAdvisor.com. Negative hotel reviews are not necessarily on the level either. They sometimes are written by competing hotels or guests less interested in accuracy than in exacting revenge for perceived problems during their stays.
The descriptions and photos provided on hotels’ own sites can be deceptive as well. Hotels that claim to be "minutes from the airport" or "steps from the beach" might be much farther away than those phrases imply. Photos of rooms might have been taken with lenses that make those rooms seem much larger than they are... and photos of views might crop out nearby highways or buildings.
High-end hotels now are the most likely to nickel-and-dime guests with excessive fees. Travelers tend to assume that low-cost hotels are where excessive fees are likely. Nicer hotels seem above such tactics. In reality, most economy chains have learned that their budget-minded customers won’t come back if they are charged too many fees, while luxury chains have learned that their guests tend not to complain about fees.
Example: WiFi is now free at most midpriced and budget hotels, yet it often costs $10 to $12 per day at luxury hotels, sometimes even more.
In fact, luxury chains are dreaming up new fees all the time. Among the latest are porterage fees for carrying your bags to your room (on top of the tip you likely already paid the porter)... bag-check fees for asking the hotel to hold your luggage... groundskeeping surcharges... energy surcharges to cover the hotel’s electricity bills... increasingly strict reservation-cancellation policies... and steep early check-in fees if you arrive before 3 or 4 pm. These fees often are not even disclosed when the service is provided.
What to do: Check the fine print, and/or call the hotel. Before making a reservation, ask whether any surcharges, such as resort fees or grounds-keeping surcharges, will be added to your daily room rate, particularly when you are staying at an upscale hotel. Ask about fees before requesting any hotel service. Scan your bill upon checkout, and question fees that you don’t understand or that you were not warned about in advance. Upscale hotels sometimes waive fees when guests politely complain about them, particularly when this complaining is done in the lobby in the presence of other guests.
If avoiding such fees is your top priority, skip the luxury hotels and stay at chains such as Microtel Inns & Suites (800-337-0044, www.MicrotelInn.com), an economy chain with hotels in 46 states that does extremely well in customer satisfaction surveys, in part because it keeps fees to a minimum. Microtel even offers free domestic phone calls.
Your luggage faces a greater bedbug danger than you do. Bedbug bites can cause itchy red welts, but those welts will heal. The more substantial risk is that hotel bedbugs could hitch a ride back to your home on or in your luggage, then feast on you and your family again and again.
What to do: Place your luggage on a folding luggage rack with metal legs from the moment you enter your hotel room -- never on a hotel bed, carpet or upholstered furniture. Bedbugs cannot climb metal. If there are not enough folding racks of this type for all of your luggage, a tile bathroom floor or entryway is the next best alternative. Dressers or desks are safer spots than beds or carpets, but bedbugs do sometimes infest hotel dressers or hide behind pictures or mirrors hung above this furniture.
The good news is that despite well-publicized recent bedbug outbreaks, the odds of encountering these pests in a US hotel room remain very low. To improve your odds even further...
Pull back a corner of your bedding when you first check in, and scan the seams of the mattress for tiny bugs or pepperlike droppings. If you see any, immediately request a new room. Inspect the mattress in that room, too.
Inspect your luggage carefully inside and out when you return home. Ideally, do this in the garage before the bags enter the living area of your home. Even if your hotel room was not infested, bedbugs might have climbed onto your bags in an airplane luggage compartment or carry-on compartment. For tips on spotting bedbugs and what to do if you find them, search for The Washington Post video entitled "How to check your hotel room for bedbugs." Or go to the Web site BedBugCentral.com.
Insider advice from a hotel concierge might not be on the level. Hotel concierges sometimes steer guests to certain restaurants, bars and/or tourist attractions because they receive kickbacks from those establishments, not because they are the best in the region.
What to do: Check guidebooks and/or ask locals who seem knowledgeable.
Identity thieves have targeted hotel chain computers. Major hotel chains, including Wyndham, Westin and Destination hotels, have experienced security breaches in recent years. High-tech crooks have learned that if they break into the computer system of one hotel in a chain, they often can access the entire chain’s reservation records, obtaining the credit card and debit card data of tens of thousands of current and former guests.
What to do: Use a credit card, not a debit card, when you book a hotel room. Debit cards do not always provide the same level of consumer protection for fraudulent charges. Use just one credit card for all hotel reservations, if possible, so that only one card is at risk. Call that card’s toll-free number, or pull up your account online, to check for suspicious account activity as soon as you return home, and scan subsequent statements carefully.
On The Bright Side
Hotel loyalty programs are quietly improving as airline frequent-flier programs spiral downward. Frequent-flier programs get all the attention, but good luck redeeming your miles for a ticket these days. Meanwhile, many hotel loyalty programs are adding perks for frequent guests such as breakfast, WiFi, room upgrades and later checkout times. It is rarely a problem to get a free room when you earn enough points in a hotel program. In fact, programs sometimes offer special deals that provide free rooms much sooner than you might expect.
Example: Choice Hotels recently offered program members a free night after just four nights as long as those four nights included stays in at least two locations.
What to do: Remain loyal to one or two chains when you travel, and sign up for their loyalty programs. Consider applying for these chains’ cobranded credit cards, too, if they are offered -- such cards often provide an accelerated path to loyalty program perks. Marriott’s loyalty program receives high rankings in surveys, but the best hotel loyalty program for you is the one offered by the chain that you like the most, assuming that it has locations in the places you travel to most frequently.