After years of collecting all those hard-won air miles, it's time for your free flight to London. But the online booking process triggers a bewildering array of mysterious extras-from "combined taxes, fees and surcharges" to a "carrier admin service charge." That freebie flight? It's 60,000 points plus $700-around $400 below what a regular booking costs.
Flight reward? How about a kick in the teeth? Welcome to the world of rampant fees, where operators cash in on our blind love for travel by picking our pockets at every turn. From airlines to hotels and car rentals, squeezing customers with unexpected extras-known as "ancillary fees"-is the new business model.
How else to explain the fastest-growing revenue stream at airlines around the world? In 2012, they made more than US$27 billion from us in extra charges-up 20% over the year before-from nickel-and-diming on earphones and blankets to those lucrative checked-bag fees.
But it doesn't have to be this way. Extra charges rely on our confusion, meaning we pay them because we don't know about them or don't understand them. Educate yourself and they're easier to avoid. And if we could also re-learn the lost art of complaining-both to managers and via social media-we might even challenge some of them and get some change.
First off, though, what are some of the most blood-boiling extras that travellers face? When notorious European budget airline Ryanair-the one that half-jokingly favours charging for washroom use-added fees for everything from credit-card bookings to printing your boarding passes, travellers around the world laughed at the mugs flying with them. But the big carriers rubbed their hands in glee and quickly began charging for services that used to be free.
Changing your dates for Air Canada domestic flights? That'll be up to $75. Bulkhead seat to Europe? $90. Checked bag to the U.S.? $25 each way. Understanding these and myriad other fees on the airline's website? Priceless.
Air Canada isn't alone. Delta Air Lines made almost as much money last year-US$778 million-in change fees as it did in baggage charges (US$865 million), a model many carriers are pursuing. Will they run out of things to charge for? Just ask Frontier Airlines passengers, who often pay up to $100 for carry-on bags.
It's hard to keep on top of these extras. For instance, Air Canada fees are listed on the carrier's website, but online fee comparisons like www.feezing.com and www.kayak.com/airline-fees are also handy. And when you find a charge that rankles (Air Transat's $20 seat-selection fee for Europe flights, for example), fire up Facebook to spread the word. My own Twitter account (@johnleewriter) is primed and ready to grouse about these and other charges.
But airlines are just part of the problem. Many hotels have a similar "drip fee" approach, aimed at turning your final bill into a huge, ever-rolling scroll. Like the airlines, they hope to confuse you, with many adding sneaky extras they hope we won't question. And most of us don't.
All of which explains the rise of the resort fee. From Florida to Las Vegas, an increasing number of sleepovers levy up to $25 per night for services like wi-fi and gym access, whether you use them or not. It's a cash grab that's often discovered only on departure, unless you call ahead. Do that, then book somewhere else instead if you don't agree with the fees. And make sure you tell the original hotel why you're not staying with them.
Outrageous parking charges are similarly reprehensible. I recently surveyed Vancouver hotels and found rates up to an eye-watering $40 for overnight parking. Consider B&Bs instead, since they almost never charge for cars.
Which brings us to room service and those lovely properties that charge both "tray delivery fees" and inflated "fixed service charges" on meals that are already overpriced. Fortunately, hotels are more flexible than airlines. Unlike airport employees, checkout staff can easily remove charges. Fierce competition-and the potential for negative TripAdvisor reviews-make many hotels highly willing to please their customers. For instance, when travellers began favouring hotels with free wi-fi, many stopped charging for it.
You should do the same with car rental companies that gouge us with overpriced gas and sky-high insurance premiums. Avoid both by returning the rental car with a full tank of gas and, if you're a car owner, checking with your own insurer first before buying a rental company policy. It also pays if you look at getting a credit card that offers car rental insurance if you use it to pay for your rental. While many credit cards don't cover third-party liability, if you own a car, your regular insurance usually will cover it. Check the specifics before you leave.
You may also want to consider shipping excess baggage to your hotel before your flight, by using a courier service like UPS or FedEx Ground. Costs can be lower than what the airlines are charging for extra baggage on some of their flights. It will be conveniently waiting for you at the front desk when you arrive to check in. You'll have to sign for your bag on arrival but added benefits are that it's trackable and insured.
Another solution? Peruse Yelp for small, top-rated independent operators at your destination. They'll likely remind you exactly what good customer service is all about.