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A disturbing new trend? UK hotels adding a service charge to your room rate

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Anyone who has travelled in Asia or the Middle East will be familiar with the concept of ‘++’ pricing. Any published rate you see for a hotel will come with ‘++’ after the price, meaning that you will also be subject to local taxes and a service charge. These are likely to add at least 20% to the total price.

This sort of pricing is illegal in the UK. Hotel pricing – and indeed airline pricing – must show all compulsory charges as part of the headline rate.

Up to a few years ago, IHG tried to get away with showing ex-VAT pricing for some London hotels on the grounds that ‘all of our guests are business travellers’. (You are allowed to show ex-VAT pricing if your advertising is aimed at the B2B market.) They don’t do this any longer.

Similarly, Trump Turnberry in Scotland had a short-lived compulsory ‘resort fee’ which was not shown in advertised pricing. This was soon stamped out.

A new enemy is now emerging in the UK, however – the ‘optional’ service charge on your room rate.

A reader recently stayed at Rudding Park near Harrogate. When he checked out, he was surprised to see a new ‘optional service charge’ of 3% of his room charge on his bill. This is separate to the service charge added to restaurant and bar bills in the hotel.

Because the charge is ‘optional’, it does not need to disclosed as part of advertised prices. It is shown in small print as part of the Rudding Park booking process.

Generously, the hotel website states that you should still feel free to leave a cash tip as well at check-out if you wish.

When our reader challenged the hotel about this, it said that ‘all the posh hotels in London are doing it’ and specifically referenced the Mandarin Oriental and The Connaught.

What this has to do with a provincial hotel in Harrogate is a different question, but it was correct. It turns out that the Mandarin Oriental in Knightsbridge now says:

Rates are per night and inclusive of VAT at the prevailing rate and subject to 5% discretionary service charge.

Over at The Connaught in Mayfair, the £618 rate for a standard room on a random day in November comes with (if you click the letter ‘i’ next to the rate):

“Rates exclude discretionary service charge at 5 percent

The brand new The NoMad London hotel in Covent Garden has also got in on the act:

“A discretionary 5% accommodation service charge will be added to your bill which is distributed amongst staff.”

To find this line during the booking process, you need to click the link which appears when you are asked to tick “I agree with the Booking Conditions” and scroll a long way through the page which appears. You will not see it otherwise.

The Ned, opposite the Bank of England, has joined in too – unsurprising as partially shares owners with The NoMad. Here you need to try even harder to find information on the charge, since there is no clickable link to take you to the booking conditions – you need to cut and paste a URL into your browser.

I don’t know if these charges are new or not. I have never paid a service charge on my room rate at a UK hotel. I wonder what happens if you book a prepaid rate? Are you given a bill at check-out for purely the optional service charge?

Given that hotels are currently benefitting from the reduced rate of 5% VAT until 31st March 2022, as well as substantially increased room rates due to post-lockdown demand (Four Seasons Hampshire now wants £750+ for a standard room at a weekend vs £350 pre-covid), adding a 3% to 5% service charge on the room rate is taking things too far.

One US hotel CEO has publicly said that he wants guests to start tipping on room rates because otherwise he will have to increase wages. With upward pressure on salaries in the hospitality sector due to a shortage of staff, the UK may be going the same way.

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Comments (250)

This article is closed to new comments. Feel free to ask your question in the HfP forums.

  • David says:

    This is a ghastly practice. Not welcome.

  • Laura says:

    Paid a 5% accomodation service charge at The Ned last weekend.
    I knew about it in advance from reading reviews, but it’s a bit sneaky. They offered to charge final bill to the card on file and email the invoice to us, so some people are probably getting charged and not realising until much later.

    • Laura says:

      Also, we did request turndown service and the bags were brought up to the room for us, but we didn’t leave/give any cash tips on top of that

      • Richie says:

        What did they do for the turndown service?

        • Laura says:

          We got fresh towels (but not robes), unmade the bed, rolled down the annoying roller blind, bottles of water left on the bedside table and topped up the coffee pods and biscuits.
          Probably just about worth the 5%! 😂

  • Pb says:

    My huge objection is to the service charge being applied to the wine , massive mark ups on bottles and here’s another 15 per cent please .

  • NigelthePensioner says:

    Service charges on top of room rates have been the norm at the high end hotels in London for years and years. It has always been discretionary, but I have always paid it as an appreciation of good service by hard working staff who are not in the front line of tipping – bars and restaurants. I would expect that the gratuities on F and B signed to one’s room would go to those staff and the end of stay service charge added would go to the other staff. If not then you are paying a service charge on a service charge!
    Its certainly not new however………depending on where you stay and remember that London has more so called 5* hotels than any other city!!

  • TimM says:

    This is a typically ‘mid- Atlantic’ discussion. Tipping habits vary throughout the World from the U.S. extreme of feeling obliged to tip at least 20%, more if the service is exceptional, to the far East where offering a tip is regarded as an insult and dishonour to the person. In Mediterranean countries, tipping is rare, other than rounding up to the next note to save the indignity of dealing with coins, but bribery, i.e. ‘pre-tips’ for a better table and service is common.

    The Brits believe in tipping for good service and are indignant about any amount automatically charged on-top without their say-so.

    Tipping is engrained in our respective cultures.

    Having lived in a fair few countries, I know when to bribe, when to tip and when to complain. I cannot think of a time or place when I did all three.

    In the UK, you are on your own. A tip of around 10% is expected if everything went well. If it didn’t then no tip. For exceptional service, then maybe return.

    There are well-documented tales of serving staff in the U.S. chasing after customers down the street if they left less than 15% tip. And in Japan and Thailand, my own experience of the sorrow shown by trying to tip an exceptional waiter or taxi driver – refused of course.

    I prefer bribery on arrival. It is so much simpler and everyone knows where they stand 🙂

    • Andrew says:

      Well, you do have the potential for “bribery on arrival” now though.

      Simply tell the check in staff to make sure they don’t bill any service charges if they aren’t prepared to give you an immediate upgrade.

    • Anna says:

      I noticed on our last trip to the US that the bill in a steakhouse we visited included calculations of what various levels of tipping would be! But it’s not too bad when you’re getting very good surf n turf for $30 to start with.

      • Bagoly says:

        Given the average level of mathematical learning in Anglo-Saxon world that is surely required!

    • John says:

      Japan I wouldn’t ever try to tip, but nobody has ever refused my tips in Thailand or looked sorrowful when being presented with one. Whether that’s a result of getting used to Americans tipping I can’t say.

      • Lady London says:

        Small presents go down very well in Japan if you’ve stayed a bit longer and had very good service. Just something small, obviously foreign, of some quality but does not have to be expensive at all, perhaps with a container that could be used on a desk or shelf.

  • A says:

    Same as the ‘resort fee’ crap creeping in at places in the US. Too far.

    • Aston100 says:

      What is the definition of a resort in this case?
      I’ve seen this getting added to New York hotels.

      • TimM says:

        U.S. English makes a hotel with facilities, i.e. more than just a room, a “resort”. This definition is creeping across the globe.

        I wonder what U.S. English is for British English ‘resort’? I also wonder about vests, thongs and tuxedos – translation: waistcoats, flip flops and dinner jackets – among many other things.

        I am from Yorkshire and I call a hotel a hotel.

      • Rob says:

        Exactly … a resort is whatever a hotel decides it is. This came up in the comments last week where a Bonvoy hotel had recategorised itself as a resort to avoid having to give guaranteed 4pm check-out to Plats and above.

        • Nigel says:

          Same just happened to us at Marques de Riscal in Rioja this week! ‘We are a resort’ I was told and can only give you till 2pm! Don’t know what they do for Amex bookings with ‘guaranteed’ 4pm checkout?

  • JC says:

    How would we petition this? Started off with 10% discretionary fee being applied to restaurant bills 15 years ago. Now it’s up to 17.5% in some London restaurants. Unchallenged, I can guarantee you this will follow suit in a couple of years and you’ll be facing 17.5% discretionary fees added to hotel stays as standard. Death by a thousand cuts.

    • the_real_a says:

      Refuse to pay it, have it removed from the bill and then give a factual 1 star rating on trip-adviser.

    • Lady London says:

      I refuse to pay any charge which is not notified as part of the booking process or at the very latest, on the original booking confirmation.

      It’s a money grab and where will it end?

      If the seller needs to achieve a certain level of pricw then let him notify it up front.

      I am actually a relatively generous tipper and contributor especially for “above and beyond” or special skill but I will decide that myself.

      • Bagoly says:

        This was no doubt “notified” but in the small print rather than included in the apparent price.
        I think it needs to be in the big font price.

  • Anna says:

    Another creeping annoyance is charging separately for vegetables – what the actual heck is that about?! It’s usually at least £3 or £4 per portion as well, which is outrageous when a head of broccoli costs 60p.

    • Richie says:

      Which is why a plate of good Sundy Roast can be great value.

    • Andrew says:

      That’s been going on since the 80s. 😉

    • Nick says:

      £9.20 for a side of spinach or asparagus or mashed potato at STK Westminster inc service – and that’s a restaurant that uses its service charge to fund the salaries of its managers, not just dining room staff.

    • Bagoly says:

      Your finding that a problem is very interesting – pre 1970s it was standard for one to order the main course (basically the flesh with sauce and perhaps a tiny garnish).
      In Silver Service restaurants one was given a blank (hot) porcelain plate, and the flesh put on it, usually from a metal platter.
      Then one had chosen the vegetables one wanted or did not at prices listed against each one; there was often “selection of vegetables of the day”.
      Each of the vegetables was placed on one’s plate by the waiter(ess) from separate metal serving dishes.
      In the 1970s and 1980s, responsibility for putting items on the plate moved from the waiter to the chef, so it looked prettier (and was more spread out over the plate for nouvelle cuisine?!)
      Personally I find it annoying that the chef wants to tell me what vegetables I should have with the flesh, so I prefer to choose, which is still standard at steak houses.

      Are you being charged for vegetables even when you don’t order that specific one (which I agree is naughty)
      Or are you raising the point that at E.g. steakhouses the price for the “Main” does not have the same meaning as at a chef-dictatorship? 🙂
      The latter per se should not matter, as there is transparency before ordering, but I do see an issue with Tripadvisor etc possibly deriving their $$$$ rating based on two different systems.

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