By Christopher Elliott
Travel fees are spreading faster than a cold virus as holiday travel heats up. It’s not just the big fees, like JetBlue Airways and United Airlines increasing luggage fees just before the busy holiday travel season. It’s the thousands of other nuisance charges that travel companies quietly add, and that you may only discover when you’re standing at the counter.
The travel industry is hopelessly addicted to these fees, which it euphemistically terms “ancillary” revenue. Last year, the top 10 airlines raked in an eye-popping $29.7 billion in ancillary revenue, largely fueled by fees. Hotels collected $2.7 billion in fees and surcharges in 2017.
Well, it turns out you don’t have to put up with this, but it takes a little knowledge to avert or fight fees.
Airline luggage fees. They’re easily avoidable if you have the right credit card, says Vladimir Gendelman, the CEO of a print and design company in Pontiac, Michigan. Free checked luggage is a common perk for many branded credit cards, but what if you have the wrong card? Pay attention to the disclosure. If the luggage fee – or any fee, for that matter – isn’t adequately shown, you can fight it.
“If fees are not disclosed prior to purchase but are charged, I call customer service,” he says. “I’m polite and tell them how much I like and respect their company as well as how often I use them. I explain that I had no idea about the fees and would appreciate it if they were waived. Most of the time, the fees are waived.”
Mandatory cruise fees. Cruise lines’ favorite surcharges are mandatory tips, added to your bill “for your convenience.” Sometimes, you can escape them by asking and delivering your service gratuities directly, but you have to remember to ask. A more pernicious type of surcharge involves pricey drink packages, according to Tanner Callais, who edits the cruise site Cruzely.com. Some cruise lines now force everyone to buy the same package if they’re sharing a cabin. “I’ve found that you can get the cruise lines to budge on this rule by talking directly with a representative,” he says.
For example, if you’re cruising with someone who has health problems or obviously can’t drink, Callais says the cruise line might exempt you from its policy.
Hotel fees. Hotels have become real innovators when it comes to extras. They also can be among the most difficult to decipher. That’s because you find a low initial rate in online searches and then add the fees only at the end when you’re getting ready to book – or even when you’re checking out of the hotel.
“If you’re staying at a hotel that tacks on resort or destination fees, often for the amenities, it’s likely going to be difficult to dispute it,” says Laura Stover, an investment advisor from Bryan, Ohio.
Difficult, but not impossible. It’s no secret, for example, that if a resort fee isn’t fully disclosed, you can successfully dispute the charge on your credit card. Also, if you’re part of a group or convention, you can sometimes negotiate the fee off your bill.
“Also, don’t open the mini-bar fridge,” she adds. That’s because the fridges have automatic sensors. Move something, and the overpriced soft drink automatically goes on your bill. You don’t even have to drink it.
Maybe you see things differently. Perhaps you believe the industry that higher fees equal lower prices. Or maybe you think that these surcharges represent the free market at its finest. But there’s no denying that these price games make travel companies profitable. Nor can anyone dispute that the cornerstone of a free market is transparency, and many of these fees are not clearly presented to consumers.
Appealing to a company’s sense of fairness may be the best way to remove a junk fee. Invoke its online guarantee or customer promise. Tell them no, you’re not providing the “highest quality air travel” by loading us down with these fees. Many travelers have negotiated their way out of paying them by simply invoking a company’s mission statement.
The most profitable airline fees
Airlines don’t publicly report all of their fees. But the government requires that they disclose two fees, and they’re huge.
Luggage fees: $2.3 billion a year. These fees started to take off in 2008, when American Airlines, citing higher fuel costs, began charging for the first bag. The other airlines quickly joined. Fuel prices fell eventually but the baggage fees stuck. Now, you have to pay to carry on a bag on many flights.
Reservation cancellation/change fees: $1.3 billion a year. Airlines started charging more for changes and cancellations because they could. A wave of airline mergers made it all but impossible to take your business to a competitor. Now, some tickets are completely nonrefundable and can’t be changed.
Christopher Elliott’s latest book is “How To Be The World’s Smartest Traveler” (National Geographic). This column originally appeared in USA Today.