The 5 Sleaziest Tricks Hotels Are Using to Screw You Over


With razor-thin profit margins, hotels are getting downright sneaky with their tactics to fill rooms. In an effort to avoid being sued, I won’t call them outright “scams” or “bait and switch” tactics.

No, these fall into more of a gray area. Enough plausible deniability on the hotel’s part (“What? We told you there was free Wi-Fi … we just didn’t say where.”), but still plenty annoying from a traveler’s perspective.

Here are five of the worst, most deceptive tactics many hotels are using these days to mislead unsuspecting travelers.

#1: Deceptive Room Categories

Hotels use a number of empty adjectives to pretty-up their otherwise not-so-pretty rooms. These days, “Deluxe” and “Superior” are to hotel rooms what “gourmet” and “artisanal” are to lousy food: completely meaningless. Not to mention, the word “superior” is relative. It’s senseless to use it to describe an entry-level room.

“Garden” is another one. While sometimes accurate, more often than not, it’s code for “your balcony offers sweeping views of our parking lot full of dumpsters.”

But the mother of them all is “Oceanview”. Again, sometimes it’s accurate, but it’s often only technically accurate. “No, no … you can totally see the water. You just have to stand on the balcony air conditioning unit and cock your head like so …”

Man Sitting on Hotel Bed
© Daniel Zedda

#2: Free (But Very Limited) Wi-Fi

(That any hotel is still charging for Wi-Fi these days is mind-boggling. It’s a disgraceful, Ryanair-style tactic. But we’ll talk about that another time …)

These days, hotels are instead touting “FREE WI-FI!” However, they never quite nail down exactly where the Wi-Fi is free. Can I actually get it, ya know, in my room? Or is it only available in the lobby? Or sometimes in the lobby? Or in the third-floor janitor’s closet? And is it a high-speed connection or can I actually hear the modem connecting a la AOL circa 1997?

I once stayed at a five-star resort in Africa where the “free” Wi-Fi was only available from one particular chair in the lobby during a one-hour window every afternoon. I’m not kidding. While not every hotel is quite that bad, it’s still a deceptive tactic and they know it.

#3: Hidden “Resort Fee” Charge

This one is particularly insidious and it’s exploded in popularity in the last few years. The gist is simple: charge guests a one-time fee for simple, often essential, amenities. Want to visit the gym, use the Wi-Fi, or drink the bottled water in your room? Yeah, that’s a $20 upcharge. Daily.

What’s worse is that it’s cropping up in hotels that are far from “resorts“. Most hotels reveal this surcharge somewhere, but it’s often intentionally buried on their website’s fine print or on one of the multiple papers you hurriedly signed at check-in. If you visit a handful of hotels each year, chances are you’ve already paid this fee at some point and not even known it.

Abandoned hotel in Phoenix
Phoenix’s Finest Hotel © Kevin Dooley

#4: When “All-inclusive” Really Isn’t

I know it’s weird, but “all-inclusive” used to mean every last thing was included in your stay: food, booze, watersports, shows, and access to every restaurant on the property. No more. Now, almost every “all-inclusive” resort is really “mostly-inclusive” or, even worse, “kinda-inclusive”.

Resorts are now saving the best food for their a la carte (read: not included) restaurants, where the additional fees are sometimes $50 USD or more per couple, not including booze. And they would historically only charge for things like jet skiing or scuba diving. Now, even basics like kayaking and use of snorkel equipment are extra.

At an “all-inclusive” property (sorry, but that term requires quotes every time) in the Dominican Republic recently, the staff provided me with a list of what was and was not included with my stay. The “additional fee” list was almost twice as long as the inclusions.

#5: “City” Hotels That Aren’t Anywhere Near the City

This final tactic is cropping up especially in suburbs throughout the United States. It’s the “City Hotel, but Not Really” naming-scheme. I’m talking about when you book “Joe’s Goodtime Boston Beantown Resort” with dreams of walking to the city’s best bars, shops, and restaurants … only to realize that Joe evidently doesn’t own a map. Because Joe’s Boston Resort is actually 50 minutes outside the city.

While they’re not technically doing anything illegal here, this is intentionally misleading and they know it. And, while travelers should always do their research before visiting a destination, they still shouldn’t be hoodwinked into thinking they’re staying somewhere — or at least near somewhere — that they aren’t.

The Bottom Line

As with anything, the key is scrutiny. Hotels count on intentionally obscuring or misleading travelers, knowing full well that you won’t realize “Free Wi-Fi” doesn’t actually mean “Free Wi-Fi in your room” until you check-in. And, by then, it’s too late. Do your research, read plenty of reviews carefully, and always call the hotel directly with any questions.

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