Starwood and AT&T #FAIL And Bless Me With $180.76 Of Phone Charges

Put this in the “every business traveller thinks this on a regular basis” rant category. Sure – I’m whining, but I imagine I’ll feel better after I get done. I doubt it has any impact on the universe, but hopefully it’ll be a story that rings true to some of you out there who travel as much as I do. And to my friends at Starwood and AT&T, you made my day yesterday, which was already intense, a lot harder than it needed to be.

I just woke up, made some coffee, turned on my computer, and noticed that my hotel bill was shoved under my door. Last night before I went to bed I tweeted “Dear AT&T and Westin Hotel Wifi: I give up. Good night.” I rarely look at my hotel bills but this time I was curious so I grabbed it. $323.10 for the room, $32.32 for State and County Tax, $9.95 for Internet Service, and $180.76 for 10 telephone calls.

Remember that I said I rarely look at my hotel bill. I travel constantly and I’m what I’d describe as a high end utilitarian traveler. When I travel alone I’m not terribly picky about the hotels I stay at, generally prefer modern to classic, just want a dark, clean room that I can make cold at night, and want to be left alone. I try to be super polite to the hotel staff while simultaneously very low maintenance.

I used to be annoyed that I’d pay $500 or more for a room and get hit with a $14.95 bill for Internet access. I stopped being annoyed by that a while ago and just view it as part of the cost of the room. I don’t watch television so my time in the room is spent working on my computer, talking on my cell phone (or my computer via Skype or Google Chat), sleeping, or being in the bathroom. That’s it. Oh – and I appreciate the free coffee service in the room since I get up at 5am and there’s rarely a coffee option anywhere until 5:30am.

Yesterday at about 2pm I arrived at the Westin Arlington Gateway. I’ve got a set of meetings tomorrow at the National Science Foundation so I’m staying down the block. My amazing assistant Kelly had scheduled a dozen phone calls between 2pm and dinner so I figured I’d just sit in my room and grind away on calls and email. A few of my calls where Skype calls and my phone number is a Google Voice number so I’d just sit in front of my computer and work in between the calls.

When I checked in at 2pm, the room they had assigned me to wasn’t ready. The guy checking me in was super nice, asked me a bunch of questions (do you want a high floor or a low floor, near the elevator or away from the elevator) to which I answered “I don’t care – whatever room you have will be fine, and found me a room. He informed me that my Starwood preferred number was on file (whatever that means) and was very  polite.

I plopped down in my room, took out my laptop, went through the “connect to the Internet” process which appeared to cost $9.95 for the day, and got to work.

After 10 minutes I knew I was screwed. The Internet performance was painfully slow. Since I had back to back calls, I didn’t have a window to call “tech support” and have them take a look so I put up with it for a little while. I figured I’d use my iPhone as a hotspot as the backup and switched over to it. That was even worse. I tried to make a phone call with my iPhone instead of Google Voice. It took three tries for it to go through and then it dropped after 60 seconds.

I was officially in RidiculousTelecommunicationStan. I struggled through the first few calls (anyone on the other end, especially the poor souls on Skype, could probably sense my frustration and theirs was probably higher) before giving up and switching to the landline in my room. Yes – a landline. I had to think for a moment whether to dial 9 first or 8 first (remember that I’m in a hotel), got it right, and simply made all the calls from that phone. Internet performance was still miserable, but by using Sparrow I managed to work “semi-offline”  and the emails went through what seemed to be simulating a 2400 baud modem.

Eventually I had 15 minutes between calls so I pressed the “Service Express” button on the phone to ask for Internet tech support. The nice person took down my info and said someone would call me back. They did 15 minutes later which overlapped with my next call. I eventually called them back just as I finished up but before I left for dinner. We did all the standard troubleshooting things which indicated that the Internet was slow and after an escalation, resulted in someone “resetting a router” remotely. I went to dinner, was about 15 minutes late, but was optimistic that when I got home I’d be able to jam through another hour or so of email.

No such luck. After calling Amy on the land line and saying goodnight, I struggled through 15 minutes of email before deciding to just screw it and go to bed. I tweeted out my frustration and quickly got a response from @StarwoodBuzz that said “Sorry about that. If you can DM us your stay details in full, we can do our best to help. We’ve followed you.” Nice, but I was done for the night, closed my laptop, and will DM them this blog post and see what happens.

And then I woke up this morning, started a cup of coffee, and noticed by $180.76 bill for 10 phone calls. Total stupidity on the part of Starwood where I’m apparently a “not very preferred guest.” It’s been a long time since I resorted to using the landline in my hotel room and it didn’t even occur to me that they’d rip me off like this. I remember staying in a Marriott near an airport recently and the cost for Internet and unlimited long distance phone calls was $9.95, so I’m doubly perplexed. And I don’t see any of those little plastic signs saying “if you use this phone to make a call we are going to charge you $2 per minute” (which is what it appears they were charging based on a few of the calls.)

I can’t remember the last time I made a fuss when I checked out over a hotel bill. I’m sure I eat some extra charges her and there, but whatever. This morning, when I head downstairs, I’ll ask to have all the phone calls taken off my bill. We will see what happens.

In the mean time, I’m going to keep reminding myself that this is 2012, not 1996, where we are just discovering the expensive magic of Internet in hotel rooms. I look forward to 2024 when I no longer have a landline in my room and the Internet works flawlessly for the $9.95 I pay a day to use it. Or maybe AT&T will work in the middle of Arlington, Virginia. Or maybe pigs will fly.

Update: The manager at the Starwood Arlington left a message for me that he had reversed all of the charges. So he did the right thing and I appreciate that. An AT&T customer service person also called and assured me he would talk to the hotel and explore if there is a dead spot in the area. I’m now on Acela to NY where their Wifi doesn’t work for shit but AT&T is tethering ok today. Now, if I could only get the soccer mom two rows up to stop telling stories about her 7th grade son’s soccer team I’d maybe be in a less grumpy place.

  • Phew. That’s a lot on your chest. Glad you got it out.. 🙂 

    RidiculousTelecommunicationStan .. haha

  • Rick Brennan

    I’ve found hotel wifi to be like betting Las Vegas – I usually lose.  I don’t even try anymore and use a Verizon MIFI 4G LTE with my MacBook Air.  Great travel setup.  Works great in DC, by the way (even on the metro).

    • You are the third person since Monday to tell me to get a Verizon MIFI 4G LTE. Exploring now!

      • i’ve found verizon’s coverage to be good on wireless data.  still i’d consider checking per my post above with virgin wireless and tmobile hotspots.

        i’ve also had a ~$1200 bill from verizon due to going over on my data

      • A fourth for the Verizon Mifi.  Used it driving x-country to SF from Brooklyn last year with good to great coverage even in remote areas.

      • Count me as a fifth.  Stayed there worked perfect.

    • I like the MIFI 4G LTE phone,
      Although I have to say that I found an iphone 4 for 300$ on and I’m very satisfied by the job it can do !
      I’ll probably look for your phone next and see how it is 🙂

  • Henry

    Pigs will definitely start flying before you get good coverage with at&t.

  • Brad,
    Starwood is a partners of ours in India, the internet charges are not mandated by the Brand… it is usually the Hotel operators who slap that on. We run 5 Aloft Brand hotels in India and WiFi is free to our guests, we understand that we have business guests and they need WiFi to do their job so we don’t charge them. In addition, the Coffee is always complementary. I am sorry you had this experience. I cannot say all Hotel operators/owners will address the issue the same way. I get pretty pissed too, when you are paying $500/night the last thing you want to worry about is phone bill or internet charges. All, I can say is when you come to India and stay at our properties… it will be our pleasure not charge you for WiFi because we value our guests and want them to come back and stay with us. We feel WiFi is another service we provide.

    I cannot talk for AT&T… I get stuffed with these charges when I am on the road too inspite of me carrying a Starwood Owners Card. 

    • Bala – good point on Starwood vs. the hotel operator. I guess I don’t know who to be annoyed with!

      • How about being chided for indulging in wet bar det soda?

  • Minor update: After my run, I went to the front desk and told the nice desk person about my predicament. He voluntarily took $100 of charges off the bill. That’s good, as I didn’t expect anything, but if you are going to take $100 off, why not just get rid of them all. I clearly am not the first person who has had this conversation with him.

    • Henry

      Because they can still make $80.76 off you? If you complain louder, they probably would have taken all the charges off. Apparently, you didn’t complain loud enough, so that tells the other person or the business: “Oh, he’s happy with what I offered him, so let’s leave it there and make some quick bucks off him.”

      • Yeah – I know I could have jumped up and down and made a stink. But I was curious what would happen if I was polite.

  • I’ve stayed at this hotel. It’s pretty nice (awesomely comfortable beds), but I do agree with you that the $180 charge for 10 phone calls is ridiculously high and is a form of price-gouging. Try the amazing onion rings at Ted’s Montana Gill just down the street.

  • i got an $800 phonebill for a 1 night stay a few years ago, because i did a day’s worth of calls on the phone.

    my solution now:  i have two prepaid internet services — virgin mobile’s broadband (sprint), and tmobile.  they’re on completely different networks, i paid ~$100 for each device and no monthly fee.  

    when i need a hotspot, i now have two networks i can try.  neither are great networks, but my hope is the overlap will make it work.  they are super fast here in manhattan

  • For someone like you who travels a great deal, a MiFi device is a must have. Completely reliable (as reliable as the Cell Networks any way!), you can use it anywhere, any time – in the airport, coffee shop, hotel, and not worry about if there is wifi and what the cost is.

    Sprint has good options as welll.

    And some of them allow you to share a connection so if you are at a meeting you can provide access to others – Become a reseller and charge them!

    • charge people to share internet in meetings?

  • I have been known to travel a lot, too.  (understatement).

    I was hit w/ one of these $300+ extra charges during a stay several yrs back – each time I connected to the internet, I got dinged w/ a time charge.  The notice of charges was hidden on a placard *inside* the closet.

    At checkout, I simply told them I wouldn’t leave the building until they removed the charges.  If they wouldn’t do that, I wld call my credit card co. + block *all* the charges (which included the room rate, meals etc).

    It took abt 10 mins of me insisting, but they removed the charges.  Done.

  • Anonymous

    I remember getting dinged in Vegas for “excessive dialup” use.  When I complained they asked very nicely around what I was doing. As soon as they realized it was email rather than pr0n they took the charges right off.  Apparently one interferes with gambling and the other doesn’t.


  • I seconded the mifi earlier, but one other thing I do is bring along an Apple Airport Express.  I find hotel wifi sucks in most places but if you can plug into their wired network with your own access point it’s usually much, much better.  You typically have to connect with a web browser and navigate whatever silly authentication system the hotel has set up (including confirming that you won’t add your own access point to their network. Oops.).  A bonus of this over the mifi is that the mifi has a 5 device limit which is pretty easy to hit if you’re a digital couple travelling with phones, ipadim, computers, etc.

  • Ulf

    Arrived at Atlanta Concourse Renaissance Hotel Sunday night and saw the water bottle by TV in room. They wanted $5.50. I drank tap water and enjoyed it tremendously.

    • Yeah – that’s a really perplexing one. I have a nice free bottle of Voss at the Gramercy but I’ve seen lots of $5 – $10 bottles lately in all kinds of hotels.

  • What a story. Next time when they ask you which room you want, answer “the one with good Wi-Fi.” There must be an App where your iPhone tells you the strength of the Wi-Fi signal anywhere you are. So, you can imagine walking the hotel hallways using it as signal detecting device…and when you see the full bars, you stop and tell the bellman…”I want this room!”. 

    Kidding aside, I buy a calling card # that I use on landlines when travelling, as a back-up to the Internet which doesn’t work well as we know, especially on high floors. You dial a toll-free number from anywhere and it’s about 3 cents per minute billed to your card. Sometimes hotels will charge $1 for toll-free numbers, but that’s about it. A $20 refill lasts me 2-3 months. Here’s the link (You end-up memorizing the number, so it’s like punching numbers to dial out) 

  • Sunspotzsz

    Get yourself a 4g phone with Verizon and root it, problem solved.

  • Haha . . Moral to the story.  It doesn’t matter who you are, or who you think you are, someone will try to screw you over. Attention must be paid!

    • Ugh isn’t there a very niche and not well publicized role for the Crimially Imaginators? Paranoia needs to pay 😉

  • Hi.I read this post two times. I like it so much, please try to keep posting.Let me introduce other material that may be good for our community. 

  • brg

    loved the update! 

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