ADVERTISEMENT

Q: Last month, a relative staying at the Andaz West Hollywood called to ask my wife and me to pick her up. We were in church so my wife had turned off her cell phone. Finally our family member got through, but when she checked out, she was shocked to find she was charged about $200 for nine less-than-one-minute phone calls that went to our voicemail. English is her second language, and she didn't question the charge. Any advice as to how we should proceed?

A: Hold the phone.

"It appears there may have been a glitch with the phone system," said Kim Okeson, who works in marketing communications for Andaz, adding that many of the calls "may not actually have gone through." Andaz is working with the customer to see if some of those charges can be dropped.

Hotel phones often are a hot button for travelers because the charges can seem disproportionately high, especially in this age of cell phones. It's easy to run up a big phone bill just by making a few calls, never mind long-distance or international charges.

Some critics say that phones are just another revenue center for hotels. Andaz says that's not the case and that the system is a convenience whose charges are calculated based on what the hotel pays its telephone service provider. "We do not make a significant profit off our phone system," Okeson said.

Chihyung Ok, an assistant professor of hospitality management and dietetics at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kan., concurs, noting that phones may contribute as little as 2 percent to the hotel's revenue. Cell phones and other electronic communication methods have taken such a big bite out of income from phones that "many hotels are still trying to justify the initial investment of having a telephone system," Ok said.

The solution is easy: Don't use the phone in the room unless you have to or unless you know for sure that you will not be charged. (Ask the front desk.) Cell phones? Yes. Skype or similar? Yes (although you may be charged an Internet connect fee). And phones in the lobby may be free, Ok noted.

* * *

Q: I rented a car from National for a family trip to Houston recently. The rental was uneventful. But a month later, I received a letter saying that the car had been returned with about $2,000 worth of damage.

I'm certain this damage didn't happen while I was renting the car. When I returned the car, the agent did a quick walk-around, and the car was fine.

I followed up by calling the claim representative at National. She checked, and in a follow-up call told me that she was recommending closing the claim. Then I got a phone call from National saying that they had figured out what happened, and it wasn't my fault, and they were closing the claim. So it all seemed fine until another month went by, and I got a letter saying that they had decided to pursue the claim after all.

I'd always assumed when you've returned a car and they have signed off and handed you a bill, then you aren't responsible for the vehicle any longer.

My insurance company is contesting the claim, but it also says the only real protection against a rental car company making this kind of claim is to take eight to 10 time-stamped pictures of the car from different angles every time you return a rental car. This seems crazy to me. But is it something we should all start doing?

A: Yes. Take pictures of your car before and after your rental and keep them for at least six months. The systems used to determine who damaged a rental are far from perfect. At least one company, Hertz, has pledged to begin photographing all of its cars before they leave the lot. The rest have less scientific ways of determining who is responsible for the dings, dents and scratches.

Here's what should have happened: When you returned your vehicle, a National employee should have walked around the car with you, noting any damage. If you spotted anything, you could have begun the claims process immediately. Contacting you weeks later doesn't make National's claim any more credible.

Not only would an appeal to someone higher up at National or its owner, Enterprise, make sense, but you should also copy the Texas Department of Insurance.

Even if National had persisted, you could have asked for documentation that the car had been damaged while you were renting it.

National is dropping its claim for good.