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Many Hotels Offer Up Free Calls

Business travelers who rely on cellphones to avoid exorbitant charges for using hotel room phones may want to reconsider.

An increasing number of hotels provide free local calls, and some provide free long-distance calls within the USA. That's a big switch for many hotel chains that profited from charging guests to use the hotel's land-line phones before cellphones and Internet communication became widespread.

Revenue from telephone charges at Red Lion Hotels, for example, dropped more than 75% in the past four years.

Only about 3% of Red Lion guests incur telephone charges, says Julie Langenheim, a spokeswoman for the chain based in Spokane, Wash. About half of Red Lion's 45 U.S. hotels offer free local calls, she says.

USA TODAY surveyed 82 hotel brands and found that about 70% offer free local calls in at least some hotels. Nearly half offer free local calls in all hotels.

Fifteen hotel brands provide free long-distance calls in at least some hotels. Red Roof provides free long-distance calls only in some high-priced rooms. Two budget chains, Microtel and Shilo Inns, offer free long-distance calls and free in-room Internet access at all hotels.

Free phone calls can be a substantial savings. The Ritz-Carlton Westchester in White Plains, N.Y., for example, charges $1.72 for a local call's first minute and $1.68 for each additional minute.

The Ritz-Carlton Buckhead in Atlanta charges $13.95 for a long-distance call's first minute, $15.89 for the second and $1.95 for each additional minute. Another upscale hotel, the Four Seasons Hotel in Houston, charges the cost of a long-distance call, plus a 45% markup.

Use of room phones has dropped

Four Seasons spokeswoman Sorya Gaulin says there are several reasons why hotels charge for phone calls. Hotels pay for phone service, employ hotel operators and provide "high-quality phones" with voice mail and other technology, she says.

Ivan McAffee, Shilo Inns' vice president of sales and marketing, says the chain noticed "an annual drop in in-room phone use" until last month, when it began providing an unlimited number of free domestic long-distance calls.

Carlson Hotels Worldwide offers free local calls. But the group charges for long-distance calls at its Radisson, Park Inn and Country Inns&Suites hotels.

The use of room phones has declined steadily during the past 10 years, says Carlson spokeswoman Joan Cronson. "It is viewed today as a necessary guest convenience, but it is not viewed as a viable revenue builder from most hotel operations."

After noticing a drop in the use of room phones, Omni Hotels last year removed 30,000 phone books from its hotel rooms last year and said it would stop supplying them. Omni, which has 36 U.S. hotels, including some that offer free local calls, says it provides guests free local directory assistance and telephone books on request.

Some hotels give free phone service only to members of their frequent-guest programs.

Members of the Wyndham ByRequest program can make free local calls at all Wyndham hotels and resorts in the USA, for instance. People can join the program without charge, though guests at some hotels are required to pay a resort fee, which provides "free" local calls and other services and amenities.

Hyatt offers unlimited local and long-distance calls in the USA to guests who pay a higher room rate for its Hyatt Business Plan. The plan provides other benefits, including breakfast, Internet access and a newspaper, a bottle of water and ironing service daily.

Charges 'a total rip-off'

Moves by hotels to provide free phone service are welcomed by business travelers who prefer hotel phones for conference calls and who have sometimes struggled for reception and clarity during cellphone calls.

Alan Intrator, who stayed in a hotel about 70 nights this year, is one of them. He says he never uses a hotel-room phone because the charges are "outrageous and a total rip-off."

Intrator, the president of a Great Neck, N.Y., company that provides credit card processing referrals, says hotels should offer free phone service, including free long-distance calls, to elite members of their frequent-guest programs.

Faith Varwig, a St. Louis-based consultant who stayed about 200 nights in hotels this year, says she uses the hotel room phone only to call room service or the front desk. She says hotels should offer free local calls but charge for long-distance. She believes that free long-distance calls would increase the cost of a room.

"I already have a cellphone with a flat rate for long-distance," Varwig says. "Why would I want to incur an additional room-charge expense for something I never use?"

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