Wake-up call: Phone fees on the rise

Hotels: Front desks, once held in check by federal regulators, are looking for bigger profits again.

August 15, 1999|By Betsy Wade | By Betsy Wade,New York Times News Service

Hotel telephone fees are starting to climb again. Although phone fees vary widely from hotel to hotel, they have become one of the three areas where hotels are seeking bigger profits, along with in-room safes and valet parking.

It is often a saving to use a cell phone instead of the hotel phone for access to a much cheaper regular carrier. It is not unusual for a hotel or resort to put a surcharge of 50 cents or $1 on an 800-number call, which is the way many guests reach their own long-distance carriers.

Fees for using hotel-room phones have traced peaks and valleys in the past 10 years. A peak came in the '80s when hotels sold their phone services to the highest bidders among "alternate operator services" and guests were surprised by outlandish bills, as much as twice the actual cost.

A valley came with regulations that guests be warned of such surcharges. People began using phone credit cards, circumventing the hotel's supplier. Many hotels and phone companies, especially those that put pay phones in remote areas, countered by blocking calls to the access codes of rival carriers.

A drop in hotel phone surcharges followed federal rulings forbidding blocked access. This rule phased in slowly, with a final deadline of 1997 for hotels reporting it would cost more than $15 a phone to remove the blocks.

When calls to discount access numbers beginning 10-XXX (these typically now start 10-10) were first blocked, all carriers began to offer 800 and 888 numbers as alternatives. As a result of the anti-blocking rules and the new access routes, the Federal Communications Commission says that complaints about blocked access have all but disappeared.

But hotel companies are permitted to put surcharges on calls to 800 numbers, providing they are applied equally to all 800 numbers. And that is happening now.

New technology is begetting the current situation. Hotels say they charge for 800 numbers because guests frequently use these to get on the Web, and once on, stay on. Kevin Maher, the legislative representative for the American Hotel and Motel Association in Washington, said members report that guests register, plug in their modem lines and leave them in until they check out. "This ties up phone lines for hours," he said, "and a hotel has a limited number of lines."

Ken McEldowney of Consumer Action in San Francisco, which for some years has campaigned against unreasonable phone charges, said he had received few complaints about surcharges for 800 calls or for long calls. He said a reason might be that business travelers were the ones using the Web and e-mail most frequently and that the charges were absorbed as business expenses.

No one is likely to select a hotel on the basis of its phone fees. But a brief look at some hotels' charges indicates the range.

In July 1998, the FCC required that phone customers be able to learn in advance what a call is likely to cost, either through a sign on the phone or by dialing a code. The smartest approach is to ask the hotel, or the hotel operator, what its charges are before making a potentially expensive call.

Hilton Hotels are among those with new charges. Jeanne K. Datz, director of communications, said that they were put in place a year ago. The price of a local call from a room is linked to prices in the area, she said, with 75 cents or $1 for the initial connection. After 30 minutes, she said, a charge of 10 cents a minute is added.

Calls to 800 numbers under 30 minutes are free, and beyond that they cost 10 cents a minute, too. Operator-dialed long-distance calls are charged at the AT&T day rate, plus 25 percent.

Datz said that Hilton was putting in high-speed access lines for computer use as it renovated hotels. These should be in 130 of the 300 domestic Hiltons by the end of the year, the company said. The cost will be $9.95 daily.

Maher of the hotel association said various other companies are following Hilton's steps -- charges for long calls and supplemental high-speed lines.

At Westin Hotels and Resorts, phone charges can vary, but Sandra Merkin, director of public relations, said there are no surcharges for lengthy calls. Local calls cost 50 cents to $1, and 800 and credit-card calls carry no extra charge.

But direct-dial long-distance is charged an operator-assistance fee of $2.12, plus $1 to $1.50 a minute, plus the AT&T daytime rate. So a two-minute long-distance call that would be, say, 50 cents from home would cost at least $4.62 at a Westin.

Westin has "guest office" rooms, with free local calls and no surcharges on an in-room fax-printer-copy machine. These cost $20 above regular rates.

Wingate Inns, part of the Cendant franchising company, has 60 hotels, all less than three years old. Jim Ferri, a spokesman for Cendant, said that these were built with T-1 high-speed access lines to the Web, and that there was no charge for their use. At Wingate, all local calls and 800 calls are free.

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