Hidden charges at hotels targeted

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HOTELS THAT charge guests inflated telephone tariffs and demand high supplements for single occupancy are under attack from ministers determined to embarrass them into dropping their prices.

A government-backed initiative designed to expose hidden charges is to be launched in September. Under the new rules, hotels will be forced to display telephone rates in every room and will be graded by a unified rating system agreed by the English Tourist Council, AA and RAC.

Kim Howells, Consumer Affairs minister, and Janet Anderson, Tourism minister, support the scheme, which they hope will result in greater transparency in the hotel trade. They are also considering reviving a 1977 parliamentary order that requires all hotels to display their charges in the foyer. Such a measure would in itself drive down prices, they believe.

"We are committed to developing quality in the tourist industry and part of that is about giving customers clear pricing information," said a spokesman for the Department of Culture, Media and Sport. "We have had initial discussions about encouraging best practices by tourist accommodation businesses and we intend to work with the industry to further that."

The most frequent complaints about hotel pricing concern the mark-up on telephone calls and the surcharge for single people. The Office of Fair Trading has investigated complaints but, earlier this year, concluded the practices did not amount to anti-competitive behaviour.

After food and board, telephone charges are hotels' third biggest source of revenue. A five-minute call from a UK hotel to America at peak time can cost anything from pounds 11 to pounds 35, compared with about pounds 1.20 from a domestic phone.

Hotels are free to set their own charges for telephone calls from guests' rooms. A report for the Consumers' Association magazine Which? highlighted the case of a businessman who was charged pounds 100 for a 16-minute telephone call to Monaco from his room at a Stakis hotel in London. He did not discover the cost until after he had made the call. The information displayed in his room said that the first "unit" of a call was 49 pence, and further units cost 26 pence, without explaining the length of a unit.

Single people are penalised when it comes to staying in hotels. Some hotels do not have any single rooms and charge a lone guest the same price as they would charge two people. Others that do have single rooms charge occupants at least 50 per cent more than the charge per person for a couple - even though they are occupying a smaller room.

When it comes to package holidays single travellers often find themselves penalised, too. While the billing appears to be done per head there is often a hefty supplement buried in the small print of the brochure.

Ministers hope the new single five-star ratings system for hotels will end years of confusion over the quality of rooms and services. The system, using the internationally recognised five stars for hotels and diamonds for guest accommodation, will offer a single rating based on the quality of accommodation and facilities.