8 Ways to Combat Outrageous Hidden Travel Fees
How to challenge and avoid sneaky hotel and airline charges
Caroline Mayer is a consumer reporter who spent 25 years working for The Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter @consumermayer
First, the good news: The U.S. Department of Transportation just proposed cracking down on many of the dreaded airline surcharges for checked bags, carry-ons and advance seat assignments, starting sometime next year.
Now, the bad news: The government isn’t trying to do away with these fees; it simply wants airlines and third-party travel sites like Expedia and Travelocity to fully disclose the fees when passengers buy their tickets. The hope is that travelers will no longer be lured into buying a cheap fare only to discover that hidden fees make the ticket more expensive than a slightly high-priced ticket.
(MORE: Beat Those Agonizing Drip Fees)
What’s more, the government’s proposal doesn’t cover all the onerous airline fees — such as those annoying rebooking fees if you have to change your plans, which can run to hundreds of dollars.
For Pauline Frommer, editorial director of Frommer’s (and daughter of travel guru Arthur Frommer), rebooking fees are the most outrageous type. “It’s nuts to make someone pay $200 for somebody to sit at a keyboard and type in a couple of things to make a change,” she said in a recent telephone chat.
Even more disconcerting: An earlier federal rule requiring airlines to include taxes and related government fees when posting fares is being challenged by the industry. The airlines have considerable support in Congress for a bill that would end it — ironically called the "Transparent Airfares Act of 2014." The nongovernment site that tracks federal legislation, GovTrack.US, gives the bill a 70 percent chance of passage.
And here’s the worst news: Airline fees are just a small portion of the added charges that travelers face these days.
Travel experts say most segments of the tourism industry have seen the success airlines had in playing the surcharge game (here a fee, there a fee, everywhere a fee fee), and are now following suit.
(MORE: All-Inclusive Resorts Are Back in Style)
However, unlike the airline industry — which is overseen by the Department of Transportation — these companies have little federal oversight.
Resort Fees Are Rampant
Hotels have become increasingly aggressive in adding “resort fees” to bills, covering services once considered standard: newspaper delivery, the exercise room, the pool and often the business center. Many also charge for a safe that’s in the room — even if guests never use it.
What’s more, travel experts are seeing more hotel surcharges every year, including housekeeping fees, concierge charges, energy-use fees, wi-fi costs and — maybe most galling — luggage-storage fees if you need to stash your bag before your room is ready or leave several hours after you’ve checked out.
The Mandatory Bellman Fee
“The Travel Detective” Peter Greenberg told me one of the most “draconian” fees he’d seen was at a Scottsdale, Ariz. hotel, where he was charged a mandatory $10 bellman tip fee. “Tipping is supposed to be optional to begin with, but what’s worse is I never even used the bellman,” says Greenberg. He successfully challenged the fee and got his money back.
These types of extra charges — which the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) calls “drip pricing” — have proliferated since 2012. But, in his recent article about “nasty hidden travel fees,” Smarter Travel contributing editor Ed Perkins said the FTC “is acting with glacial speed to correct the problem before it spreads.”
In a telephone interview, Perkins told me: “These mandatory fees are scams with only one purpose — to make real prices look lower than they actually are. It’s dishonest.”
(MORE: The New Rules on Tipping When Traveling)
Car Rentals and Taxis, Too
Car-rental companies are notorious for their surcharges. Anyone who’s rented a car recently knows there are all sorts of add-ons — for the airport location, peak season surcharges, excise taxes, added driver fees, early return penalties and on and on. Perkins says these fees usually go straight into the rental company’s pocket.
Taxis often sock you with surcharges (for extra passengers, luggage and rush-hour traffic) and now the increasingly popular ride-sharing/car-for-hire services such as Uber and Lyft are getting into the act. Take one of those and you could be assessed a $1-per-ride safety fee.
The Obamacare Restaurant Surcharge
And there’s one more fee that’s been cropping up at a handful of restaurants around the country: A surcharge to cover the added costs of meeting the Affordable Care Act’s health-insurance requirements for employees.
Eight Gator’s Dockside locations in Florida have imposed a 1 percent surcharge and Republique, in Los Angeles, has an “optional” 3 percent fee so it can provide all its full-time workers with health insurance. (News reports say most Republique patrons pay the fee after waiters explain it.)
So what’s a traveler to do? Here are eight tips:
1. Read the fine print before booking. That includes cancellation policies, as well as extra charges you may incur once you arrive, says guidebook author Reid Bramblett. Remember: foreign-based carriers don’t have to follow all U.S. rules, including fee disclosures.
2. Use hotel search engines that include all fees in their price comparisons. Not many do. Perkins’ favorite is TheSuitest, which includes things like taxes, resort fees, onsite parking and wi-fi charges in its nightly-fee calculations. Unfortunately, Perkins notes, the site has only a limited number of hotels in a limited number of cities.
3. Be creative. You may be able to avoid some car rental fees, for instance, if you have the time and flexibility to pick up your wheels at a non-airport location.
Similarly, if you don’t have to stay at a downtown hotel with high parking fees, look for lodging further out that doesn’t impose such charges.
4. Scrutinize your proposed hotel bill when checking in. That’s when and where many of the extraneous fees are often disclosed. You’ll have more success challenging and removing them at sign-in than at checkout, since many hotels won’t void the fees when you’re leaving.
5. Review your hotel bill before checking out. It’s easier to challenge the fees while you’re still at the hotel, instead of after you get home.
6. Be nice. “It does you little good to get heated or belligerent,” says Bramblett.
If you politely engage the airline or hotel agent in conversation, you’d be surprised at what you may get, adds Greenberg, who has seen courteous customers win airline upgrades and hotel freebies such as parking and kids-eat-free passes.
7. Dispute any fee you weren’t told about in advance. You may not be able to eliminate it, but you’ll never know if you don’t protest.
8. Finally, complain to the corporation levying the fee and to the government if you’ve been assessed a charge you think is unfair. For airline charges, email the Department of Transportation.
For hotel fees, go to the Federal Trade Commission. “You may not win every time,” says Bramblett, “but if enough customers complain, it might cause the hotel industry to begin rolling back some of these fees.”