The Brancatelli File



December 17, 1997 -- When guests at the Marriott Marquis on New York's Great White Way want to phone home, they face a challenge more daunting than counting all the bright lights on Broadway. A plastic card near their room phone lists a dizzying menu of telephone fees and 16 different calling options.

The financial penalty for making a bad choice is severe: A five-minute long-distance call charged to the room costs more than four times the price that AT&T charges residential customers.

The Marriott Marquis isn't unique when it comes to pricing calls; its charges are about average for U.S. hotels. In fact, the obvious placement of the Marriott menu card is exemplary: Far too many hotels hide their roster of phone fees in bureau drawers, bury it in a guest services directory, tack it on the back of a closet door or simply leave travelers in the dark.

Calls from hotel room phones have become so pricey that Kate Fralin, a spokesperson for MCI, the nation's second-largest long-distance company, has adopted a hard-and-fast rule: "I never bill a call to my hotel room," she says. Bluntly put, being a smart traveler means following Fralin's advice. But the hows and whys of hotel calls take a bit of explaining and a dollop of strategy.

Unlike in-room towels, beds, and televisions, telephone calls are an added expense for the traveler. How fair is that?

"Phone service should be part of the room rate, but telephones are a profit center for most hotel chains," claims an executive at Sprint, the nation's third-largest long-distance company. "Some hotels make more on telecommunications than food and beverage service."

Not true, counters Hyatt Hotels. "Telephone usage is so variable that we don't know how to build phone service into the room rate without ripping off the traveler who doesn't make calls," says one of the chain's telecommunications experts. "That's why phone service is pay-as-you-go. If you use the phone, you pay. If not, you don't."

This disagreement among the experts is reflected in the high cost of hotel calls and the cornucopia of fees and surcharges imposed. In fact, no two hotel chains have exactly the same policy when it comes to charging for telephone calls. Moreover, not every hotel in a chain adheres to the company's stated policy. And several large hotel groups--including Best Western and Inter-Continental Hotels--don't even try to promulgate a nationwide phone policy.

The confusion can wreak havoc on your travel budget, but it's safe to assume that billing a long-distance call to your hotel room is usually the most expensive option. Hotels not only bill you at an inflated rate for each call, they also add a hefty surcharge.

You can cut costs by billing long-distance calls to a telephone calling card; AT&T, MCI, Sprint, and your local phone company issue them at no charge. Many hotels impose a surcharge for using a calling card, but the total cost of the call is still cheaper than if you had charged it to your room. Want to avoid a hotelís calling-card surcharge? Head for a pay phone in the lobby and use your calling card there.

In recent years, travelers have been burned by high charges from obscure long-distance companies known as alternate-operator services (AOS). Although most major hotels have dropped AOS firms as their long-distance carriers--19 OF 20 chains now use AT&T--some independent hotels and many public pay phones still work with these rapacious operators.

To avoid an AOS, always connect directly to your own long-distance carrier by dialing its 800 access number (AT&T: 800-CALL-ATT; MCI: 800-674-7000; Sprint: 800-877-8000). It's easy: Dial the access number just as you would dial any 800 call, the phone number you're calling, and then your calling-card number.

If you think the cost of charging a call to a U.S. hotel room is high, you'll be outraged by the cost of billing calls to your foreign hotel room. Hotels in Europe and Asia sometimes inflate the charges by 400 or 500 percent. So never charge a call to your room while overseas; always use AT&T Direct Service. This program allows you to call a local toll-free number and bypass both the hotel's phone system and the foreign country's phone network. You are connected directly to AT&T and are billed at standard AT&T rates. (MCI and Sprint have similar programs for making calls from overseas, but their plans are available in far fewer countries than AT&T Direct.)

Many travelers deal with the high cost of hotel and public phone long-distance calls by purchasing prepaid calling cards. Unfortunately, prepaid cards aren't a good solution. First, prepaid cards usually don't save money; their cost-per-minute is extremely high. Second, they are inconvenient to use, requiring a complicated dialing sequence. Third, they are nonrefundable; if you lose the card, you've lost your money.

A final thought: Few hotels are as forthcoming about their telephone rates as the Marriott Marquis. If you can't find--or do not understand--a hotel's phone fees, assume the worst. Then protect yourself by using the 800 access codes for AT&T, MCI and Sprint.

This column originally appeared at Frommer's Travel Update.

Copyright © 1993-2005 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.