A resort fee is a mandatory nightly surcharge imposed by some hotels. This fee can add anywhere from $15 to $75 per night to the cost of your stay.
Hotels typically explain this additional fee as covering the cost of certain "complimentary" amenities such as wi-fi connectivity, daily newspaper delivery, or access to the fitness room and pool. However, this is a fee that covers services and amenities available at no charge by a great many other hotels.
For the consumer, resort fees can vastly distort the actual cost of a stay. The room rate plus the resort fee is the true per-night cost.
In 2016, U.S. hotels will make an estimated record $2.55 billion from fees and surcharges, according to a study by New York University's Tisch Center for Hospitality and Tourism. That's up from the previous record of $2.45 billion in 2015.
Fees and surcharges collected by the U.S. lodging industry have increased every year except for 2002 and 2009 when demand dropped.
Resort Fee Basics
Resort fees are far more common at luxury hotels and high-end properties. Note that budget and mid-priced hotels routinely offer services such as wi-fi, gym access, and newspaper delivery on a truly complimentary basis without a resort fee.
Unlike room rates, which can vary according to season and day of the week, the resort fee is generally a fixed amount per room per night. Occasionally, and somewhat egregiously, a hotel will charge a resort fee based on per person per night. If you encounter this method of pricing, you should strongly consider staying at another property.
Hotels impose resort fees in order to advertise lower room rates, particularly on third-party booking sites. But make no mistake: This is an illusion so buyer beware. The true cost of your hotel stay is the room rate plus the resort fee, plus any other mandatory fees and taxes imposed by the hotel and local and state government.
By law, hotels must disclose if they charge a resort fee somewhere on its web site—but that information can be very difficult to find. At this time, the hotel industry does not have a transparent, standardized practice for disclosure.
Nobody likes getting hit with unexpected charges. The best way to find out if the hotel has a resort fee is to call the hotel directly and ask. While you're asking about a resort fee, ask about other hidden charges that may impact your decision to stay or not stay.
FTC Calls for Intervention
In 2013, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) sent warning letters to hotels and online travel agencies, saying resort fees "might" be deceptive. This was widely viewed a first step toward a some kind of enforcement action.
In January 2016, Federal Trade Commission Chairwoman Edith Ramirez called upon Congress to draft new legislation to protect consumers from hidden hotel resort fees. Ramirez recommended that measure to relieve the burden of investigating hotels on a case-by-case basis.
At Ramirez's request, Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) introduced a bill in February 2016 that would grant the FTC the authority to enforce the prohibition of advertising a hotel room rate that doesn't include required fees. If passed, the legislation would prohibit hotels from charging guests hidden fees by requiring hotels to include the full cost in the advertised room rate.
How to Avoid Resort Fees
The easiest way to avoid paying resort fees is simply to choose hotels that do not impose them. Always check on the hotel's web site or call the hotel direct to find out if the property imposes a resort fee. Even among luxury hotels, it's possible to find those that do not impose mandatory resort fees.
Tip: You can call the hotel directly and ask to have the resort fee waived, especially if you will not be using the amenities covered by the fee. While this tactic doesn't always work, it's always worth trying—especially during an off-peak season when the hotel may be more willing to negotiate to fill their rooms. If your request is denied, you can either choose not to stay at that property or make it clear you are paying the resort fee under protest.