Hotel’s costly phone, Internet access

Looking for a “reasonably” priced but quality hotel room in London in October ’04, I was offered a “superior double room” at the Thistle Euston (TH) near Euston Station for about $200 per night and it did not sound too bad. The room turned out to be just fine. What ultimately got to me was the “pounding” for the extras.

I had specified to my travel agent that I wanted a hotel with Internet capability. The TH advertised that they had this. When I arrived, I read the brochure and noted that the charge for high-speed Internet access for guests was 50p (then about 90¢) PER MINUTE, with a maximum charge of £15 ($25) per day. This meant that if I browsed the Internet for just 30 minutes a day, I would pay £15 for the service. This was much more than twice the largest incremental cost per minute that I had run into in any other hotel in my travels.

As a result, I opted to use my AOL dial-up Internet service that provides a local FreeFone number for London and for the U.K. in general. It entitles AOL users in the U.K. to (supposedly) call AOL and log in free of telephone line charges almost anywhere in the U.K.

But when I plugged my laptop’s modem into the telephone outlet using my standard UK to RJ11 modem cable, no dial tone was found. Just to make life interesting, Thistle had reversed the tip/ring pairs for lines 1 and 2 in their wall plugs, making the active pair for the room telephone line 2. Thus, the standard UK (line 1) to RJ11 (line 1 as well) phone cable to my computer’s modem would not work when I plugged it in.

My guess is that this would frustrate all but the rather technically minded users who wanted to use their laptops to connect to outside dial-up Internet from the hotel. (Why not just pull the RJ11 plug out of the room phone and use it? Because they had glued it in and it was not removable from the telephone. Nice touch!)

I asked at the hotel desk and found out that the Thistle Euston telephone system had BLOCKED access to these FreeFone AOL numbers so that guests had to use their regular local calling service (for about 50p per minute) to access AOL or any other dial-up Internet service. In fact, TH had a “block” on all “local FreeFone” numbers so that guests would have to pay their large price per minute to make any local call — this in a city where many businesses offer their customers FreeFone service in which the called business pays for the local call.

I think someone at Thistle Euston gave this scheme a lot of thought toward forcing customers to use their expensive Internet service and local phone services or do without! With this scheme, it would cost about £1 ($1.80) for two minutes’ connect time to collect/send e‑mail when using dial-up to a local London phone number. They have you coming AND going! (Think of the furor if a hotel in the U.S. blocked free 800-number calls by guests!)

Yes, it might be cheaper to use the high-speed Internet service as opposed to the dial-up, but remember that, as in many Internet cafés, this hotel charged for ALL the time that a guest’s Ethernet cable was PLUGGED IN to a computer. Guests do not pay for “megabytes transferred” or “usage time”; they pay for “plugged in” time.

Just when I thought I had witnessed the biggest price gouge in the communications market, I got my final hotel bill and it showed a charge of £42 ($75) for ONE call to the British Library’s Customer Help Line. The call lasted just beyond four minutes. The British Library (in London) charged 50p per minute for these calls, but the TH manager told me that it was Thistle Hotel policy to charge £10 ($18) PER MINUTE for “any premium call.” Any call reflecting an extra cost back to the hotel’s PBX is deemed a “premium call.” The user has no awareness of this “premium call charge” or of the policy until he gets his bill.

The duty manager refused to make a reasonable adjustment and so I asked American Express to attempt to intervene on my behalf to get this charge reduced to a reasonable amount. They filed a charge-back request with Thistle Euston which was eventually approved, allowing me a “goodwill” refund of about $75.

Subsequently, I got an e-mail from the finance manager at Thistle Euston, who said they were going to have a thorough review of their communications pricing policy.

I have had pleasant and unremarkable stays at many Thistle hotels in the U.K. over the years. This was my first encounter with what I consider to be unreasonable rates or policies at a Thistle hotel.

On my 4-week European trip, I stayed at a hotel every night and encountered high-speed Internet services as follows: A) none available, B) free to use in the business center, C) free-to-use WiFi in the lobby, D) about $5-$12 per day in the room and E) Thistle Euston’s remarkable $25 for a half hour or day.

Local telephone charges at hotels varied, including A) free local calls, B) about 10¢ per minute, C) about 25¢ per minute and D) Thistle Euston’s charges of about $1 per minute for local calls and a whopping $18 per minute for the “premium” call noted above. No hotel that we stayed at in Ireland, the U.K., France or Germany blocked our calling to the local AOL telephone number except the Thistle Euston in London.

It is interesting to note that my long-distance telephone card did have a number to call on which call the Thistle Euston did not make a charge. If I had been thinking, I guess I could have used the long-distance calling card (about 4¢ per minute) to call the Atlanta, Georgia, AOL modem access number! From Germany once, I did make such a long-distance modem call using a hotel phone and phone card. It worked okay, but the speed was pretty slow.

I do recommend having a local long-distance calling card wherever you go to “phone home.” It is FAR cheaper than any hotel long-distance rate.

Dawsonville, GA

ITN sent a copy of the above letter to the Thistle Euston (Cardington St., London NW1 2LP, U.K.) and received no reply. In a follow-up, in September ’05 Mr. Mehaffey e-mailed the Thistle Euston and inquired about their current phone-charge policies. He told ITN, “I received a reply from the London area General Manager of Thistle Hotels, who has concluded that the $25-a-day charge for Internet service, plus their policy of blocking ‘free phone’ access to toll-free numbers (such as AOL’s London Access number), are ‘in line with the London Hotel market’.”