Unpopular Opinion: Hotel Minibars Are a Scam and You Should Never Use Them

Budget Travel
by Eben Diskin Apr 19, 2022

This is the Travel Take, where Matador’s writers and editors make the case for their favorite travel hacks, tips, and personal tics.

Telling someone not to use their hotel minibar is kind of like telling them not to blow $20 on slots in Vegas. When an amenity is available, convenient, and tempting, people tend to indulge without much consideration. Though a slot machine might be a fool’s gamble, at least it has the possibility (however small) of giving you a return on your investment. The same can’t be said for the hotel minibar.

While the convenience of walking three steps from your bed to the minibar can’t be beat, the value, quality, and overall experience certainly can. Minibars are built for consumption, but not really for the consumer. They’re like those glittering claw machines containing GoPros, iPhones, and PS5s, and they’re a tantalizingly easy premise that fools us into believing it’s worth $2 to play. Well, it’s not worth it, and deep down, we know it.

The next time you find yourself in a hotel and hungry, thirsty, or lazy, look literally anywhere except a minibar.

Consider the cost

Let’s get this out of the way first: There’s exactly one occasion when using a hotel minibar makes total sense, and that’s if you’re staying in rural area where everything closed before you even made it in.

Consider what the minibar actually offers. Tiny bags of mixed nuts, tiny cans of Coke, tiny bottles of alcohol, tiny juices – the common theme is pretty clear. What’s not tiny, however, are the prices. A bag of nuts might cost you $5, while a bottle of water could set you back $3.50. God forbid you feel like indulging in a small bottle of Jack Daniels, which could easily cost the same as a cocktail at a trendy bar. Calling hotel minibars overpriced isn’t exactly a revelation, and the prices would actually make sense if there are no alternatives to be had. In the vast majority of cases, however, that’s simply not true.

Whether it’s a nearby bar or restaurant — which many hotels have on-site — there’s almost definitely something with actual value and ambiance within easy walking distance. Even if all you’re craving is a quick bite to eat, a convenience store is basically a minibar in its final evolutionary stage, except its offerings are actually priced reasonably. And unless you’re really in the styx, there are plenty of delivery apps out there.

Even a lot of hotels don’t like minibars

It’s often the case that minibars make almost no money for the hotel, and might even result in a net loss.

A 2017 report found that minibars make up just .04 percent of a hotel’s total food and beverage revenue. There’s labor that goes into minibar maintenance that isn’t often taken into account. Someone has to stock it, note any items taken by guests so the appropriate charge can be made, and then replace those items. This adds to the already daunting work of the cleaning staff, as well as desk agents who handle the actual charges.

That’s not taking into account the time it takes to reconcile with charges that were levied by mistake or because a guest accidentally knocked something off of a motion sensor. According to the manager of Miluakee’s Ambassador Hotel, 90 percent of automatic minibar charges are actually a mistake. This not only creates headaches for guests who must dispute the charges, but also for the desk agents who then find themselves contending with angry customers.

The few exceptions

There are some hotels trying to totally reinvent the minibar experience.

The Yacht Club in Boca Raton, Florida, lets guests personalize their minibar, by choosing what items they’d like in advance. That could be anything from craft beer from local breweries to juices from Whole Foods. Other hotels, like the Kimpton Hotel Born in Denver, offer only local whiskey, beer, snacks, and other items in their minibar. Some hotels are going for a minibar-cocktail lounge fusion, giving you a full-service bar experience right in your hotel room. The W Hotel in London has a cleverly-named Mega Bar option, which comes with a full bar, sound system, disco ball, and personal mixologist.

That said, if you thought minibars were expensive before, wait until you try paying for a 12-ounce local craft beer that’s been set in your minibar just for you.

The concept of minibars isn’t necessarily a bad one. It’s the execution that, historically, has lacked imagination. There are hotels doing minibars the right way, it’s just that those hotels are in a very small minority right now. The future of the concept may still be bright, but we need more creativity and less accidental surcharges for expired orange juice.

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