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 The Brancatelli File

joe THE HIGH COST
OF PHONING HOME


BY JOE BRANCATELLI

April 15, 1994 -- When guests of 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 sixteen different calling options.

The financial penalty for making a bad choice is severe: a five-minute call charged to the room costs more than three 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, or simply keep travelers in the dark.

Hotel calls 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 an enlightened traveler means following Fralin's advise. But the hows and whys of hotel calls take a bit of explaining and a dollop of strategy.

Why Calls Cost So Much Unlike towels and televisions, telephones mean 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 Rich Kalbrenner, president of a division of Sprint, the nation's third-largest long-distance company. "Some hotels make more on telecommunications than food and beverage service."

Not true, counters Gordon Kerr, a senior vice president of Hyatt Hotels. "Telephone usage [among guests] is so variable that I don't know how to build phone service into the room rate without ripping off the traveler who doesn't make calls," he says. "That's why phone service is pay as you go. If you use the phone, you pay. If not, you don't."

Cutting Costs The disagreement among the experts is reflected in the high cost of hotel calls, and the cornucopia of fees and surcharges imposed. As the accompanying chart shows, no two hotel chains have exactly the same policy. Moreover, not every hotel in a chain adheres to the company's stated policy. And at least two large hotel groups--Best Western and Inter-Continental Hotels--don't even try to promulgate a nationwide phone policy.

The confusion can wreck havoc on your 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 the calling-card surcharge? Head for a pay phone in the lobby and use your calling card there.

Two Important Tips In recent years, travelers have been burned by high charges from obscure long-distance companies known as "alternate-operator services." Although major hotels have dropped AOS firms--19 of the nation's 20 largest chains now use AT&T--many smaller properties still work with these rapaciously priced operators. To avoid an AOS, always connect directly to your long-distance carrier by dialing its 800 "access" number (AT&T: 800-225-5288; 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 your calling-card number.

Also use the access number when you want to use your calling card at a hotel that imposes calling-card surcharges. In many instances, this will help you avoid the surcharge.

Calling from Overseas 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. Never charge a call to your room while overseas; always use either AT&T USADirect or MCI CallUSA instead. These programs allow you to call a local 800 number and bypass both the hotel's phone system and the foreign country's phone network. You are connected directly to AT&T or MCI, and are billed at standard AT&T or MCI calling card rates.

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

THE COST OF PHONING HOME*
AT THE MARRIOTT MARQUIS
$4.76 BILLED TO HOTEL ROOM
$2.51 COLLECT (USING 800-OPERATOR)
$3.10 USING COINS AT A PAY PHONE
$2.15 BILLED TO AT&T CALLING CARD

AT THE GRAND HYATT
$4.50 BILLED TO HOTEL ROOM
$3.26 COLLECT (USING 800-OPERATOR)**
$3.10 USING COINS AT A PAY PHONE
$2.90 BILLED TO AT&T CALLING CARD**

RESIDENTIAL PHONES
$1.35 AT&T STANDARD RESIDENTIAL RATE
$1.09 AT&T "TRUE USA" RESIDENTIAL RATE
* A direct-dialed, 5-minute call from two New York hotels.
** Includes 75-cent hotel surcharge on 800-number or calling-card calls.

This column originally appeared in Travel Holiday magazine.

Copyright 1993-2008 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.