One hundred dollar bills

Surprises often greet vacationers: sunburns, stormy weather, rental-car flat tires. But a Missouri lawmaker wants to make sure unexpected fees added to quoted hotel prices do not ruin the trip.

Sen. Claire McCaskill has been collecting stories from her constituents about hotels and resorts that slap nonoptional fees on their final bills, charges beyond what had been cited in advance.

The Democratic senator, a champion of consumer-protection laws since her time as state auditor, wants to convince her colleagues that legislation might be needed to discourage these activities.

“I don’t think it’s the government’s business what hotels charge,” McCaskill said. “I do have a problem when someone goes online and is given a rate for their hotel, and they rely on that rate, and when they check out, they find fees tacked on that are not optional.”

The fees might be for various services — Internet, a workout room, a business center, for example — that lodgers may or may not use. There might also be an overall “resort fee” that had not been disclosed in room charges.

A 2014 study by a New York University professor indicated fees and surcharges in American hotels amounted to more than $2 billion annually.

A nonprofit consumer group called Travelers United has urged the Federal Trade Commission and state attorneys general to address these practices.

“If a hotel charges a mandatory fee, it should be included the nightly room rate,” Travelers United asserted in a campaign launched last year. “Failing to do so deceives about the true cost of the room and undermines the power to comparison shop.”

McCaskill has experience in taking on consumer protection issues. In 2001, as Missouri auditor, she took on the “instant loan industry,” which her audit pointed out, in one example, had charged as much as 391 percent on a $300 pay-day loan, without any statutes to regulate this.

After she went to Washington, her consumer causes have ranged from credit reporting agencies to medical equipment sales.

Last summer, McCaskill wrote to the chairwoman of the Federal Trade Commission urging a revived investigation into the “deceptive practice” of charging undisclosed resort fees.

The FTC, in late 2012, sent a letter to 22 hotel operators warning that their online reservation systems might be in violation of federal law because of low price estimates offered without reference to associated fees. It referred to the technique as “drip pricing.”

No enforcement actions followed this warning.

Also last summer, McCaskill put out a call to Missourians to share experiences about such charges. In the first two weeks, her office got more than 220 responses.

One, without the name released, came from St. Joseph: “We went to Las Vegas and were charged a resort fee of $25 per day and the pool was closed. And I asked the hotel not to charge me the fee since they had no resort facilities and they refused.”

McCaskill said in a conference call with reporters that she wanted consumers to be assured that the prices quoted to them for hotel rooms represented the prices they would eventually pay.

“I feel very strongly with the Internet shopping that’s going on for hotel rooms, it’s very important that mandatory fees be included in the quoted rate,” she said.

Ken Newton can be reached at ken.newton@newspressnow.com. Follow him on Twitter: @SJNPNewton.