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Fleeced by fees when you travel?
Fee to hold your airline reservation for a few days: $20. Peak air-travel surcharge: $47. Rental car GPS: $13 a day. Beach chaise longue: $20 a day. Resort fee: $25 a day.
Your carefully planned vacation budget? Out the window. We have all learned by now that the travel industry loves a surcharge, and most of us have adapted accordingly. On planes we bring our own headphones, snacks, pillow, blanket. At hotels we know not to drink the pricey bottled water in the room. Fine. For anyone taking a trip in 2012, certain perks might seem like legitimate extras.
But as I peruse some of my latest bills, the � la carte add-ons do not feel like small pleasures;they feel like things that ought to be included in the basic price. More to the point: they feel like sneaky ways to pluck a few more dollars from my pocket.
In the last few months I've unwittingly paid for newspapers plopped outside my Starwood hotel-room door (review your bill before you check out) and rental-car fees with vague, perplexing names like "airport concession recovery" and "facility charge. " And I have been taken aback by fees for hotel beach chairs, umbrellas and parking. These were on top of fees I knowingly paid for preferred seating on planes, in-flight Internet, changing tickets and simply printing boarding passes.
The growing list of add-on fees would be comical were they not at our expense. There are now charges for reservations, cancellations, boarding early, departing early, holding bags, checking bags and using the gym, the business centre and the safe in your room. And thanks to the latest high-tech minibars, you cannot even touch an Almond Joy to read the calorie count without a charge on your bill (along with a "restocking" fee).
Some fees are mandatory;you must learn to factor them into your vacation budget. Others are optional. And then there are the charges that you're welcome to opt out of - if you can figure out that you've been billed for them in the first place.
A record $1. 85 billion in fees and surcharges was collected last year for hotels alone (up from $1. 2 billion in 2000), according to Bjorn Hanson, divisional dean of the Tisch Center for Hospitality, Tourism and Sports Management at New York University. He expects that figure to climb to $1. 95 billion in 2012.
Airlines, meanwhile, collected more than $3. 3 billion in baggage fees and more than $2. 3 billion in reservation cancellation and change fees last year, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. Rental car companies and cruise ships also take a share, with extra charges for child seats and navigation systems, as well as certain onboard snacks, activities and excursions.
"There is this increasing feeling of a shakedown, " said Jonathan Turley, who, as a leading expert on constitutional and tort law, frequently travels for work. Turley said he actually laughed during a recent visit to the Waldorf-Astoria when he was told that it would cost him $15 a day for Wi-Fi on one device, say an iPad, plus $15 for each additional device. "Then you go across town to the Days Inn and they have Wi-Fi for free, " he said. "As someone who teaches law and economics you expect to have some predictable market response to this need, and it's actually flipped. You get a higher level of these services at lower-end hotels. "
And don't get him started about plane tickets, which he likens to tickets at Disney World. "You pay this upfront cost, but then you find out that everything in the park is designed to eke out a little bit more of your money, " said Turley, 51, who thinks the travel industry is actively trying to lower consumer expectations by charging separately for even the most basic services. "I get the feeling that the airline industry is really waiting for my generation to die, " he said. "We're the cranky, loud ones because we have a higher expectation. Every day, fewer people remember what it used to be like. "
Added fees and surcharges emerged as an industry practice in the late 1990s with resort fees that claimed to be for things like beach towels and housekeeping, then spread to airlines, cruise lines and car rental companies. Hotel fees, for one, are highly profitable and, according to Hanson, have increased every year except for the periods following the economic downturns in 2001 and 2008 when lodging demand declined. Despite the fees, hotel rates "are still not back to 2007 levels, " Hanson said, adding that going forward, the industry will most likely focus on raising room prices because ultimately it's more profitable than fees.
But fees continue to give airlines a boost. Fuel surcharges have risen nearly twice as fast as oil prices since April 2011, according to a study by Carlson Wagonlit Travel, a travel management company. Take Spirit Airlines, which in November plans to raise its fee range for carry-on bags to $35 to $40, up from $30 to $35.
And the menu of fees is only growing. Easy-Jet, the no-frills European airline that currently doesn't assign seats, in November will begin charging £3 to £12 (about $4. 75 to $19 at $1. 58 to the pound) to select a particular seat. This summer US Airways began offering a $19. 99 premium entree for economy passengers flying internationally.
Even cruise lines are adding fees, among them Carnival Cruises, which is in the midst of a pilot program that, for $49. 95, will allow everyone in your stateroom to board the ship early.
Yet many obligatory charges are easy to miss and hard to understand. In January, the Department of Transportation regulations took effect requiring airlines and ticket agents to "include all mandatory taxes and fees in published airfares. " Baggage fees must also be disclosed.
Hotels are also coming under fire. When visiting the Hilton Garden Inn Sonoma County Airport last year, Rodney Harmon received a copy of USA Today that he claims not to have wanted or read, yet he was charged 75 cents. Last year, the Arnold Law Firm of Sacramento filed a class-action lawsuit against the "Hilton Family of Hotels" on behalf of Harmon and other Hilton guests who, according to the lawsuit, have "unwittingly purchased newspapers they reasonably believed and understood to be without charge" because the fee was printed inside the paper room-card holder in "extremely small font which is difficult to notice or read. "
Despite lawsuits and customer complaints, fees continue to pop up on bills, and they are becoming increasingly harder to withdraw.
Hotels are training employees on how to handle guests who object to fees by first repeating their objection with something like "Oh, I understand you were surprised by the minibar restocking fee, " and then adhering to a script that involves explaining to the guest why the charge is necessary.
Disappointing customers is a risky move, though. People who feel duped are more angry and less likely to return to the offending company, according to research by Vicki Morwitz, a marketing professor at New York University Stern School of Business who has studied consumer responses to what's known as drip pricing by airlines and rental car agencies. "You can't win over a consumer by misleading a consumer, " she said. "You're going to lose by negative word of mouth. "
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