Starwood’s Check Out for Children: fair or foul?

Check Out for Children, a Starwood and UNICEF program, raises funds through guest donations in Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Asia–Pacific.

UNICEF’s info is a bit dated:

Guests at Starwood Hotels are invited to add US$1 (or the equivalent in local currency) to their bill upon check out, as a donation to UNICEF.

From the partnership launch in November 1995 to 2011, guests at participating Starwood hotels donated US$25 million to UNICEF. From 1995 to 2008 these funds enabled us to immunise 1 million children against deadly diseases.

The ‘invited’ part is a bit misleading. This is my second stay in recent months at The Hongta Hotel, Shanghai, a Luxury Collection property. First time around I had noticed a small UNICEF card on my bed each night next the typical card about saving the environment by not changing sheets. I did not pay any heed to the UNICEF card until on checkout I saw a US$1/night charge on my bill for UNICEF.

Hongta Hotel Check Out for Children

The charge was never mentioned at check-in and when I saw it at checkout was concerned that my company would cause me expense hassle for putting a charitable deduction on my hotel itemization, and alternatively trying to pay myself would be administratively difficult. So, feeling like a heel, I requested the charge be taken off my bill, instead supporting charities in my own way, which I target at 5% of my gross income annually.

I found the card on my bed again this stay and the language is a bit different than ‘invited’ implies:

In order to support UNICEF’s work, an extra US$1, or local currency equivalent, will be automatically added to your bill. If you agree, you do not need to do anything. If you prefer not to donate, please let us know when you check out.

I am torn on this. The program certainly generates funds for a cause I feel is worthy, much more funds with its ‘opt-out’ method than it would with ‘opt-in.’ However not everyone will feel that cause worthy. I also prefer to direct my charity to where I decide it will be best employed. The method is debatable: some will see it and not mind, some will think it sneaky, some will never notice. At a minimum there should explanation at check-in, not just a fine-print card by the pillow. Best practice is to inspect hotel bills at check-out but we all have our moments when we dash without study and discovering this later involves hassle to the customer to alter. A Starwood customer should have a reasonable expectation that a bill will be accurate.

Readers, do the ends justify the means here? Fair or foul?

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  1. This is without any doubt a decepteive and misleading practice that SPG seeks to get away with under the guise of taking customers’ funds for a charitable cause.

    It is not acceptable to put the burden on the customer to stop the donation. The burden should be on the hotel to ask the customer if the customer wants to donate.

    It is also interesting that Starwood gets the credit for this.

  2. UNICEF CEO, Carl Stern receives $1,200,000 ($100,000 a month) plus all expenses including a Rolls Royce. Less than 5 cents of your donated dollar goes to the cause.

  3. Foul. It’s your call where to direct your charitable giving (or to donate at all). This denies you the ability to research the organization to find out if they actually use the funds for programs (easily done with or Also, how can you account for this charge on your taxes?

  4. Going with the foul side here – I saw this card on our trip in January, and based on the card at that time decided to leave $1 bill on the nightstand next to the card. Saw the automatic change on the e-bill after leaving the hotel. Not cool taking the choice out of it – and I hear you on the business reimbursement side of this as well, they might as well label it a regional tax the way they are auto-charging it (ironically, that would make the expenses easier….)

  5. Foul. I was automatically charged for a UNICEF donation upon check out from the Le Meridien Barcelona and I asked them to remove it. I don’t appreciate SPG dictating the charities I donate to without my consent and it’s a deceptive practice regardless if it’s for a good cause. You should never charge a customer for something they haven’t agreed to, period. I donate to charities on my own terms based on which ones I feel have the greatest need. SPG needs to respect that.

  6. I stayed at 3 Starwood properties in Morocco last week and they all listed a “charitable donation” line item on the bill at checkout. To their credit, each time the desk agent pointed it out and asked if I wanted it removed. He/she asked in a way that didn’t sound as if they were trying to guilt me into leaving it on the bill. I was fine with it since they were upfront about it.

  7. This reminds me of a similar issue from when I was a student at Carleton College. There was an automatic donation to the Minnesota Public Interest Research Group (MPIRG) on your tuition bill each quarter unless you specifically opted out. It became the focus of controversy during my time at Carleton (I don’t know why then and not before).

    My personal take: I don’t like these practices. I plan my charitable giving, rather than have it be impulse-driven. It allows me to focus on organizations I value. If I like UNICEF/MPIRG/whatever enough, I will donate to them. If not, I won’t. The funds the organizations receive from these practices strike me as targeting to lazy – taking advantage of them. Even if it’s for a good cause, I don’t think the ends justify the means.

    @Jeff: thanks for illuminating the misinformation.

  8. Absolutely foul for the reasons you note. I had this happen to me at a Westin once. When I complained the money was refunded to me. But it was the principle of the thing that really bothered me. They tried to claim that my SPG account was set to accept this charge. Which was certainly news to me. I figured each property must get points for raising money this way so some are more aggressive about doing this as a way to make themselves look good.

  9. I was actually very intrigued by this as it could lend itself to an interesting class action suit. However, it appears that most of the hotels that do this are in Europe and Asia, although this no doubt affects tens of thousands of Americans. Also, most of the Unicef discussion of the program online mentions how the guest is “invited” to contribute, as opposed to being told that they can opt out. I would suspect hotels properties win special awards or benefits based on the amounts of contributions they raise.

  10. More and more places want you to make a donation as you purchase (Wendy’s etc.). Ten they publicize how much “they” donated to the charity. I prefer to give direct.

  11. I have often dealt with this as well as optional “won’t you please donate” at supermarkets. I calmly explain that I have an autistic family member and none of these well known organizations have ever done anything for the cause I care about.
    Those that feel charitable might investigate the Boston Higashi School, the salaries are quite average but they are probably the best School for Autism in the world.

  12. This is something Starwood should STOP. As a guest I don’t want to be solicited for donations. Especially when Starwood is getting a BIG tax write off with the funds they collect!

  13. Totally agree – this is a bad practice. It did not happen to us at an SPG property in Seattle or Nova Scotia which were the last two we stayed at. We also do planned giving and when I am asked by a store or other location to add a dollar or two to my check or bill it makes me feel like a cheapskate, which I am not. I may try to save on travel but give generously to the causes dear to me. Maybe time to tweet this link to SPG.

  14. Definitely foul. It happened a few times in Shanghai at spg as well last month. Luckily my work place is strict about sending in the itemized bill so I check it at checkout every time. That was how I discovered it. They also try to put a bit of the shame component as well since now you are removing the donation rather than refusing. I do not remember getting the charges once I was platinum but I would be sure to mention it to the hotel manager and spg representatives if that were to happen to me again.

  15. I´m very happy to see how many people plan their donations because you believe in a better world, probably Starwood has an agressive campaigne collecting funds, but more than 25 milions since 1995 its more than you expected from a private company.

    its funny also to see people that spends hundreds in 5 star hotels and cries for simple buck, more funny if you have a very well planned donations plan.

    if the problem is Unicef, ok probably have more expenses like others organizations but more than 65% reaches to the field (65% of 25milions its also a good deal)

    for your best donation plan I attached you a web that helps me to choose the best NGO to donate

    Have a nice day my friends

  16. FAIR – Starwood donates $1 for each room sold

    FOUL – Starwood defaults to a $1 increase in room price and will not make the donation if the customer doesn’t foot Starwood’s bill for it

    This is definitely FOUL.

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