The report's focus was on cities where you could find the most four-star hotels for less than $100 a night when buying through Hotwire's opaque system — that's where you know the price, rating and general location but don't find out the specific hotel until you make a nonrefundable purchase:
— Cities with the greatest spread between the best published list price and the opaque price are Detroit, with a $58 spread, Dallas ($52), Chicago ($47), Atlanta ($45), Minneapolis ($39), Orlando ($37), Las Vegas ($35), St. Louis and Salt Lake City ($32), and Reno-Tahoe ($27).
In some ways, I was surprised that the spreads were as low as they were. My experience has been that opaque buying cuts the price of a four-star hotel by a lot more than $58, let alone $27. I can't argue, however; the results were based on Hotwire's actual bookings and published rates posted on other big websites during the first seven months of 2013.
But the numbers of four-star hotels with sub-$100 rates is seriously distorted by the fact that most hotels in Las Vegas, Orlando and Reno-Tahoe add hidden "resort" and other mandatory fees up to $40 a day to what they post as their rates. The fees don't distort the price differentials: You pay the same fees whether you buy at a posted or opaque rate. But the fees can easily put what looks like a $75 room over the $100 mark.
Digging into these numbers revealed an ugly truth about current hotel markets: The cancer of mandatory fees is spreading, and the FTC's feeble efforts to police the marketplace are ineffectual. Although the worst offenders originally concentrated in Las Vegas and Hawaii, they've invaded other popular visitor centers as well. I checked the 10 cities on Hotwire's list and a few other important destinations for mandatory fees:
— Many or even most hotels add mandatory fees in Anaheim/Disneyland, Aspen, Atlantic City, Las Vegas, Myrtle Beach, Orlando/Disney World, Reno-Tahoe and Scottsdale. Resortfees.com also shows fees in Biloxi, Miss., plus scattered resorts in California and Texas.
— On the other hand, I found no added mandatory fees in Branson, Burlington, Gatlinburg, Jackson Hole, Mendocino, New Orleans or Newport Beach.
One of the most galling aspects of this problem is that almost everybody who looks at the scam buys into the hotels' phony excuses for the fees. The hotels generally put forth a laundry list of services the fees supposedly cover — Wi-Fi, a daily newspaper, a bottle of water in the room, access to gym facilities, and such. Because the lists are plausible, people fall into the trap of accepting the correspondence between fees and individual services; they analyze the problem in terms of whether or not those services are worth the fees. In fact, those claims are totally phony: As long as the fees are mandatory, what hotels say they cover is meaningless: It they're mandatory, they're an integral part of the base rate.
Early this year, the Federal Trade Commission sent a letter to the largest hotel chains advising them to inform customers of their mandatory fees. In response, most hotel chains and online agencies now post their fees somewhere on the first screen, but don't include them in the featured price used for comparisons. FTC apparently thinks that's enough disclosure, but it isn't. Websites can still base rate comparisons on the phony pre-fee prices, so those comparisons do not reflect real prices. The only true solution is to require that all mandatory fees be included in the initial base rate posting. How we'll get there, however, is anyone's guess.
(Send e-mail to Ed Perkins at firstname.lastname@example.org. Perkins' new book for small business and independent professionals, "Business Travel When It's Your Money," is now available through http://www.mybusinesstravel.com or http://www.amazon.com)