It’s time to ban the hotel minibar once and for all

Evgeny Korshenkov/Shutterstock
Evgeny Korshenkov/Shutterstock

If shelling out $10 for a small bag of M&Ms makes you feel a little scammed, then you’ll love the hotel industry’s latest trend: closing its in-room minibars.

Those tiny refrigerators, armed with sensors that seem to detect when you gaze longingly at the overpriced Pringles or chilled Diet Cokes, are doing a disappearing act. It’s about time.

During the latest round of hotel renovations, these so-called guest “conveniences” are reportedly being unplugged and unceremoniously wheeled away at a growing number of hotels. For example, when the Hilton Riverside in New Orleans upgraded its guest rooms last year, the minibars were shown the door and replaced by regular refrigerators. Some Hyatt properties, including the Hyatt Regency Scottsdale Resort and Spa at Gainey Ranch, did away with theirs years ago.

But did they go far enough? Simply carting away these money traps, one by one, won’t work.

What can be removed today can make an unwanted comeback tomorrow. No, they need to be banned, if not by company policy, then by law.

Minibars represent everything that’s wrong with full-service hotels, according to many disenchanted guests.

“Hate them,” says Gene Plantz, a computer consultant from Hoffman Estates, Ill. “If you even look at the mini-fridge the wrong way, you get a bill for $100.”

It isn’t only the steep markups — $7 for a bottle of water that should cost only $1 — that bothers guests. It’s the lengths to which some resorts will go to collect minibar revenues.

David Eccleston, a retired programmer from Fort Lauderdale, remembers checking into a hotel in Hong Kong several years ago.

“I saw the high price of a Coke in the minibar, so I didn’t take it,” he recalls. He bought a soda from an outside vending machine, and when he was done with it, he left the empty can in the trash inside his room.

“When I checked out, I discovered they had charged me for the Coke,” he says. After he explained the mistake, and noted that the beverage was still in the minibar, the hotel reversed his charge.

Of course, there’s also the shock of the bill. Joan Wallace, a retirement planning consultant from Boise, says even if she doesn’t flinch at the price of a $20 beverage, her employer does. “They don’t appreciate those types of expenses on my account,” she says, adding that she prefers to empty the minibar of overpriced items and use it for items she buys at a grocery store.

Alas, that doesn’t always work. Some hotels will charge you for the privilege of emptying and then restocking the minibar, or for having a refrigerator delivered to your room.

It may surprise you to learn that most hotels don’t like minibars, either. The ones getting rid of these so-called “amenities” say they’re too much trouble and don’t make enough money, despite the astronomically high markups.

“Of the hundreds of hotels with minibars to which I have served as a consultant, not one achieved a profit from the minibar service,” says Bjorn Hanson, dean of New York University’s Tisch Center hospitality program. He supports canning them. In addition to being a seemingly endless source of guest complaints, the expense of the snacks and beverages and the hassle of restocking them represent a drain on profits.

What’s more, the high-tech minibars don’t always work.

“Even with the sensor, there are items consumed, but not paid for,” Hanson says. “For example, if bottles are stored on their sides, some dishonest guests will remove the top from the bottle without removing the bottle from the unit and allow the contents to pour into a glass, so the sensor will not detect that the item has been consumed.”

Wouldn’t it be great if a full-service hotel chain bravely stepped forward — publicly and permanently — and said, “We’re done with minibars”?

If not, perhaps it’s time for the government to step in and encourage the hotel industry to do the right thing, if not because it’s good for customers’ wallets, then for their health. Despite a move by some hotels to add healthier options, most still stock junk food.

Some municipalities already have de facto bans on minibars because they restrict the sale of spirits, which kills any hope of a minibar turning a profit. Or we could always follow New Zealand’s example, which may effectively ban minibars when new liquor laws kick in this December.

Despite the disappearance of some minibars, many resorts continue to market these snack traps as a “convenience.” But they’re no more a convenience than cigarette vending machines, which, thanks to strict federal laws, are now all but extinct. No two ways about it — these money-sucking iceboxes aren’t just bad for hotels, they’re bad for you.

Can you think of any better reason to get rid of them once and for all?

Should hotel minibars be banned?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • Mark

    I would never consume anything from a minibar, and they are right up there with $17/day Wi-Fi on my list of most hated “amenities”. But I would like to see these ripoffs go away by popular rejection, not by some government edict.

  • Bettina

    I would prefer minibars did not exist. But a minifridge in which to store drinks and snacks – not for the main meals, but for the water before bed, for snacks for my day trips, etc.

    I never use the minibar, my first thing usually when stepping out after unpacking is finding a store and buying drinks and healthy snacks.

    However, one thing I do love are the Nespresso machines, together with a selection of coffee and tea in rooms. That is lovely. A nice cup of tea in the morning when getting ready and before breakfast just starts the day off right. However, I would always clean the cup I use first, since often the same cloth is used to clean the cup as to clean other parts of the room.

  • sirwired

    I agree that minibars suck, but a law banning them seems to be a bit much. There are more serious hotel-related matters for state legislatures to worry about. (Getting rid of poorly-disclosed resort fees and updating luggage liability amounts would be a good start.)

  • Darksideblues42

    I once stayed at a property in Providence, RI and was charged for just about every item on the top shelf in the mini-bar. The punch line….there was nothing in the minibar when I checked in and when I placed 2 bottles of water, a Diet Coke and a small salad I bought at the adjacent mall on the top shelf, I ended up charged $94 to store my items for the afternoon.

    The original front desk person was unsympathetic claiming “The system is never wrong” so I asked to speak with a manager. The whole situation became clear when he asked if I was on the 11th or 12th floor (I was) Seems that there was an Alcoholics Anonymous group holding a meeting at the hotel, and I was staying on one of their allocated, but unused rooms, and per the agreement with the group, the Mini-bars were emptied.

    That was 45 minutes of my life I will never have back.

  • frostysnowman

    Hotels are getting rid of mini bars because they don’t produce enough revenue to warrant their expense. It’s not any type of “brave” decision. Especially when they can stick it to us with Internet access fees, and fees for papers we don’t read or want, and fees for unlimited local phone calls we don’t make, and mandatory resort fees, and so on.

  • Raven_Altosk

    Need a fridge but don’t want to pay for it or deal with the mini bar?
    Just tell them you have a “medical need” for one.

    US hotels will generally furnish one at no charge because they’re afraid of getting harassed for violating ADA. Now, if you’re checking into a no-tell-motel that doesn’t offer fridges/mini bars at all…you’re SOL.

    Yes, I’ve done this.
    Yes, it’s kind of dishonest.
    No, I don’t care.

  • Richard Trilling

    I find them very convenient and highly useful. I use them a lot to store my insulin in them, and on occasion some yogurt or another midnight snack bought elsewhere.

    I’ve never used them to obtain drinks or peanuts, much to expensive, besides the small exercise in going down to the street is good. from.

    To be perfectly honest, I’ve also never been unduly charged for them either, this on all the continents I’ve been on.

    I say keep them. One does not have to get soda, … from them.

  • Evyl Empryss

    Did any chain ever try to make a reasonably-priced minibar? A buck or a buck-and-a-half isn’t too bad for a soda (similar to gas station or vending machine drinks) or dollar chips or candy would have sold more in bulk and created less fuss over prices. Since the chain would get their snacks cheaper in bulk it might have even turned a profit. It’s when they get money hungry that people fuss. Or was it that they jacked the prices up not for want of money, but to keep from having to fuss with restocking? Yes, the stuff is there, but they’d discourage people from taking it with high prices.

    I stayed at a hotel with one of those sensor-rigged minibar once. I opened the fridge and pulled out a soda before my husband warned me to look at the price chart. I put the can back within a minute of taking it out, but they still tried to charge me for it, claiming that I could have gone down to the gas station before check-out to replace it with another. Not sure how that would have mattered, but they felt the convenience of having a cold drink when I checked into my room was worth some $5 or so. Yeah… no.

  • Dave Kearns

    Get over yourself. Elliott. Or have you no self-control? Let me decide – for myself – if that snack is worth it or not. The fact hat they’re being removed would indicate that most people decide “not”. So – butt out.

  • MJonTravel

    If anything at a hotel needs to be banned, it’s the “resort fee.” I have a choice as to whether to take anything from the mini bar or not.

  • RetiredNavyphotog

    With some mini-bars, if you open the door, or even move an item to put a small container of yogurt inside, you will be charged.
    It has happened to me.

  • RetiredNavyphotog

    Be nice.

  • RetiredNavyphotog

    The funny thing is that when I stay at a less expensive hotel, Wi-Fi is always free.

  • Hokichick

    Government has more important things to deal with than regulating over-priced chips and soda, for heaven’s sake.

  • jimzmum

    I’d much rather the government concern itself with governing, rather than over-legislating for the few who can not stop taking junk from a hotel mini-bar.

  • SoBeSparky

    Ban a hotel service? Is this Soviet Russia or the USA? Come on. The U.S. government is not in the business of policing the services inside a hotel room. If you don’t like it, don’t look at it.

    For those who voted yes, I would like to visit your stores and vendors and decide lifestyle issues I disagree with. So I will ban jeans which drop off the hip to show a kid’s butt, and ban pink stretch shorts which are worn by women two sizes too small.

    As for billing practices, that is another matter, just like billing for a newspaper, resort amenities, or automatic service charge. Incorrect or deceptive billing is always wrong.

    I don’t like hotel movies, and I bet I can find five or ten anecdotes of other people who got falsely billed for in-room movies. So should we ban all in-room movie boxes because I and five or ten other people don’t like them? Just don’t use them, just like not using the mini-bar. Consumer choice. Next thing some eco-wacko will ban any thermostat setting above 68 in winter and below 82 in summer. That’s the problem with police states where one’s personal decisions are imposed by the government. A mini-bar or in-room movie box is not a threat to the health, safety and welfare of anyone if you don’t use it.

    Out of maybe 50 separate hotels stays in the past two years, I cannot one recall false billing for anything whatsoever. Of course, I do my consumer research before I stay places. If you choose to be ignorant and prepay for a bottom-rated hotel, and to buy USD$10 Cokes from a mini-bar, then that’s YOUR problem, not OUR problem. Leave the government out of it.

  • Timothy Woody

    I agree. No need to get the government involved in the services a hotel has to offer – or not offer. How many bureaucrats would we have to pay to make sure that the hotels complied with the law/regulation? We would end up paying for not having minibars! I don’t use them and therefore don’t pay for them. Just as it should be!

  • Miami510

    I voted no…. they shouldn’t be banned. I never have purchased items from a mini-bar and always say, when I’m handed the room key, “Have you a room key without the mini-bar key?” Sometime, the second key to the room lacks the mini key. It certainly is a rip-off, but having a law banning it… well “no.” That rubs my libertarianism the wrong way. [No, I’m not a Libertarian :) ]

  • Bill___A

    I’ve never had a problem with the minibar actually – not so far at least. I agree that resort fees should be banned, minibars should die due to economic reasons. Generally, I don’t take the key for the minibars. If the minibar is not locked, I take a picture of it when I arrive and one when I leave.
    I’m sure these arguments over minibar charges must be quite nasty. If this happens so much, why haven’t I seen Chris have any cases about minibar charges?

  • Cam

    Banned? No there is no need for a law about something as trivial as this

  • JimDavisHouston

    I simply just don’t use them. My pet peave is when I’m blindsided by that lame & insulting Room Safe Fee.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Well said.

  • Grant Ritchie

    Minibars are pure evil. It wasn’t widely reported at the time, but when Pope Francis tried to check out of his room at the Domus Internationalis Paulus VI on the morning of his installation, there was a nasty shouting match over… you guessed it, minibar charges. :-(

  • Richard

    Guess I’m lucky, that’s never happened to me yet. I’d dispute the charge, starting at the desk in a very loud voice, by demanding written proof on what I took.

    What did you do?

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    The majority believe that hotel minibars should be illegal. That someone should go to jail if they put a minibar in their hotel. Amazing. Truly amazing.

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    Thought that was just a Letterman joke. ???

  • Annie M

    When I get into a hotel or on a cruise ship, I call and ask the hotel to remove everything from the mini bar anyway. I just returned home from the Westin Waterfront Hotel in Boston and was pleasantly surprised when I opened the refrigerator to see it empty. Bought my own water and put it in there.

  • Annie M

    I ask to have the contents of the mini bar removed when I arrive at a hotel or cruise ship. I was pleasantly surprised when I went to the Westin Waterfront Hotel in Boston and found the refrigerator empty last week. I was able to fill it with my own $1 bottles of water and didn’t have to worry about moving something and being charged.

  • Grant Ritchie

    I knew I heard it somewhere. :-)

  • RetiredNavyphotog

    I was in a hotel in Europe. Luckily I went down to the front desk the night before I left to make sure there were no additional charges on my bill. Yep…a mini-bar charge showed up from just moving an item. I guess I looked somewhat honest because the charge was immediately removed. But I had an early morning flight the next day – so can you image if I had to dispute the charge while being concerned about making it to the airport on time. Maybe that is how the hotel worked – slap on a couple of charges, the customer is in a hurry and doesn’t take the time to dispute because they are worried about being delayed to the airport.

  • John H.

    Interesting to have some people feel so threatened that they become verbally insulting. Easy to do when hiding out on the Internet.

  • Dave Kearns

    Threarened? Hardly. I do get agitated when someone invokes government bans for a voluntary activity which is – at worst – mildly irritating. Much less iritating than the preaching of those who wish to safe us from ourselves…

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    That happened to me once in Paris. I had them clear the minibar so I could put my own items in it. A small charge appeared about a week after I checked out. I called the hotel, they were apologetic, and immediately removed the charge. It was painless.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    If you actually had taken to soda and replaced it later, the charge would have been valid. But since you didn’t the charge was wrong.

  • Judy Serie Nagy

    Your premise that minibars are a pain is correct. They’re dumb, expensive and annoying (useful occasionally however). People who consume expensive junk food and then complain about the cost are also dumb and annoying. If you don’t like the cost, don’t eat the stuff. A minibar has saved me a couple of times over the years when I arrive at 2am after a disasterous travel day. If you even open the minibar door, review your bill before you check out and have the front desk remove any erroneous charges. It’s just a communication problem, not a reason for any legal action. We don’t need more lawyers or “government” in our lives! I love a refrigerator in my room and would hate to see the pendulum swing back so that everything has to go through room service. I’ll keep saying it: hotels should hire a few real travellers to consult with so they stop doing stupid things in the name of customer satisfaction. They seem to be pretty clueless when it comes to furnishing a hotel room for someone who actually travels regularly.

  • Judy Serie Nagy

    We all get agitated about stuff. No need to be nasty about expressing yourself.

  • Jim Zakany

    The best minibars are at all-inclusives, like Beaches. Not only is everything free, but they will stock it with whatever you want. I had mine filled with Red Stripe.

  • Keith Lockwood

    I spend 150-160 nights in hotels every year and have been charged for items I have never taken on numerous occasions… the charge shows up after I have checked out and I first see it when I am reconciling my expense report with my receipts. I have never, ever (not even once in 19 years on the road) so much as even breathed on an item in a hotel mini bar and it’s irritating having to call the hotel after the fact to get the charge removed. Don’t think we need to get the government involved but I salute hotels that are removing these things!

  • LFH0

    If there are consumer information labels (e.g., list of ingredients) on the items in the minibars, how would one be able to read those labels–in order to make an intelligent decision on whether or not to purchase the item–without picking up the items to look at it?

  • Travelnut

    One time, I lost my wallet in Frankfurt, Germany on a Friday night. My friend lent me €50 to get me by until Monday when I could get my AmEx replaced. I was thankful for the hotel minibar where I could charge some things to the room and conserve my cash. Regarding being charged for items you didn’t take, a hotel in London wanted to charge me £83. But they didn’t give me any problems when I said I didn’t use the minibar.

  • Joe

    I second that motion. I took a $5 water from my room recently and was hit with a $30 minibar charge as a result. Pulling figures out of thin air and charging it to the room in a completely anonymous manner is typical hotel cowardness. If they didn’t have the luxury of doing this fuzzy math while I’m gone for the day, they’d be carried off the jail like everyone else. One time, the front desk pushed back when I reported a bogus minibar charge. They eventually relented when they realized I was going to lose it in their hotel lobby with dozens of guests standing around. I put hotels in the same category as used car salesmen.

  • Joe

    Try to keep up here. We aren’t talking about whether they’re worthwhile. We’re talking about whether the fact that they’re serving as an accessory to theft 90% of the time warrants a ban.

  • Lily

    Oh goodness – yes please get rid of minibars. My first job was working Night Audit at a 350 room resort and balancing the minibar charges was the one job we left till last (or gave to a newbie) as it was a horrendous nightmare. We would then get so many complaints about people claiming to have not used items (was a previous guest) etc etc due to room service not keeping proper track of items as well…nightmare for hotels!! Whenever I travel with the hubby we always take all the items out of the minibar (and count them to make sure they are all there) then put our own items into the fridge.

  • emanon256

    You can always say you need it for baby food storage. Its worked 100% of the time for me so far. Although, we actually do need it for baby food storage. The pouches have to be refrigerated after opening. But I don’t fault you either.

  • emanon256

    I miss the good old days when a mini-bar clerk came by each day to re-stock and tally the mini bar. I never once had an erroneous charge back then.

    The mini bars with the ridiculous charges drive me nuts. Why even bother? Who spends $10 on a coke, or $20 on a 50ml vodka or $35 on a 375ml bottle of wine? That being said, I have seen some hotels where the mini bar is reasonable. Recently Mrs. Emanon and I decided to shell out $12 on a 375ml bottle of sparkling white. Yes, I could have gotten a 750ml bottle for $10 at the store, but it was worth it to us for the convenience. If the prices were more reasonable, perhaps they would actually get used and make a profit.

    What drives me nuts even more are the electronic mini bars. I purposely never even touch them. I stay away as much as possible, and yet I still get randomly charged. Most hotels remove the charges when I complain. However, at the Cosmopolitan in Las Vegas, I was charged $45 for vodka and peanuts, and they refused to adjust the charges. I never touched the mini bar, and after being charged I verified the items were still there. I spoke to the front desk and they insisted the technology is fool proof. I even spoke to the manager who refused to do anything. I contacted the hotel customer relations manager, who insisted that she has anecdotal evidence that one afternoon I enjoyed eating nuts on my balcony while drinking a bottle of vodka. It took an e-mail to the GM (I found him through Linked In) to get this resolved.

  • emanon256

    I stayed at a Hilton in San Francisco about 3 years ago and they charged me $40 for storing my own food in the mini bar. I checked my bill pre-checkout and there were two $20 mini bar charges. I went to the desk to have them removed and they looked up my bill and said it was because I put my own food in the mini bar. I told them that was ridiculous, and they said its disclosed on the mini bar menu. I went back and looked an sure enough it was. There was fine print on the bottom that said the mini-bar is for pre-stocked items only, and that any guest who adds personal items to the mini bar would be charged $20 a day.

  • emanon256

    I just stayed at the Hilton garden In the the OBX and they had a fridge, and it was empty. I loved it! Same at a Marriott in FL a few months earlier.

  • Judy Serie Nagy

    Sorry you didn’t understand, Joe. My point was that a ban is unnecessary if people take responsibility for their actions.

  • Hampton Inn Fort Lauderdale FL

    great article…….

  • Bill___A

    They’d make money if they charged a reasonable price. Wal Mart would sell very little if they tripled their prices on everything. Maybe they should try realistic prices and see how that goes. I’d use the minibar if it was properly priced.

  • harry

    It’s their way on having extra income in their minibar . I think all of the hotels make charges on it.