The high price of high-price hotels


Travel magazines wow us with beautiful photos of luxury hotels, breathlessly telling us about turn-down service, high-thread-count sheets, and opulent grounds or public spaces designed for lingering. Somewhere there will be a small notation reading something like “doubles from $499.” Of course that’s before taxes, tips for bellman and housekeeping staff, the resort fee, the Internet access charge, the fee to use the gym, and the room-service surcharge.

What tourists may not realize is that these additional charges on your checkout bill are only the beginning. Plenty of other factors keep socking it to you, contributing to the “unseen luxury tax.” Here are six ways luxury hotels will cost you even more than you think.

1. Everything at the hotel is expensive.
It is common practice in the lodging industry to base prices of all goods and services available at a hotel on the class of the hotel. So whether you are buying a beer in the bar, room service for two, or a trinket in the gift shop, the price will be proportional to the room rate. For example, expect to pay double the Marriott menu prices at a Ritz-Carlton, even though the hotels are owned by the same company. Similarly, amenities you routinely get for free at budget or midrange hotels — such as Internet access, local phone calls and breakfast — will cost you a bundle at the luxury palace.

2. You’re paying for the public areas.
When developers talk about a new hotel project, they describe it in terms of cost per room, even though much of the money is going toward things that have nothing to do with the rooms themselves. A good portion of what you spend on your room each night goes to pay the costs of building and maintaining the whole property. This is why it makes little sense to pick a luxury hotel for a quick night’s sleep: You are paying for the golf course, the marble lobby, the carved mahogany bar and the celebrity chef in the restaurant — whether you take advantage of any of these amenities or not.

3. Only deluxe taxis wait at your hotel.
In New York, you may pay only a few extra dollars if you hire a car service instead of an ordinary yellow taxi. Internationally, however, you will pay two to five times the local cab fare for a deluxe taxi — and that’s often all that will be available at a high-end hotel. When I flagged a taxi in Lima, Peru, for a ride across town, it cost me $3. When I took a ride back on the same itinerary from a luxury hotel, it was $18. Yes, the car was a little nicer, but a $15 difference?

4. You will not get advice on local transportation.
Here’s a little game for you. Next time you’re staying in a luxury hotel, go to the concierge or the doorman and ask how to take a local bus, tram or subway to wherever you are headed. About 99 times out of 100, the answer will be, “You should take a taxi.” This will be true even if there is a subway stop outside the hotel and you’re going only eight blocks. The hotel staffers earn tips, kickbacks and a boost to their prestige when guests are rolling in and out of the entrance in big deluxe taxis and limos. They’ll do what they can to discourage you from carrying your shopping bags back from the bus stop or subway stairs into their lobby, despite what their employer’s public relations “green initiatives” may say.

5. You may have to pay more to be treated equally.
An inexpensive hotel is glad to have you as a customer no matter how you made your reservation. Luxury hotels, on the other hand, are more pleased with some guests than others. If you booked direct, they will be very happy to see you. If you booked through Priceline, Hotwire or through some promotional deal on Expedia, you are likely to be treated as a second-class citizen. In several U.S. travel magazines, luxury hotel managers have bragged about giving discounted customers the worst rooms in the hotel and even scaling back bathroom amenities since the customer scored a discount. Is that attitude worth a premium?

6. You have little bargaining power.
If you are at one of the most expensive hotels in town, the locals assume you are rich — period. Forget trying to convince any taxi driver, tour guide or shopkeeper otherwise. You will not be able to bargain down prices very much, you will pay more for everything and you’d better be a good tipper.

If you go in knowing that your room rate is only part of the story, and you expect to keep opening the wallet wide for the unseen luxury tax, you will probably have a better time than if you are already scraping the bottom of the barrel just to come up with the room rate. If you want the luxury experience without continuous shakedowns, take your hotel choice down a notch and just drop in on the luxury palace for drinks or dinner. Let someone else pay for the marble, the chandeliers and the extra charges for Wi-Fi.

Tim Leffel is author of the books Make Your Travel Dollars Worth a Fortune and The World’s Cheapest Destinations. He also edits the award-winning narrative Web ‘zine Perceptive Travel.