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Travelling? How to have a fee-free vacation

When Vancouver-based travel consultant Sonya Orr checked in at a Las Vegas hotel around midnight on a recent stopover, she wasn't too thrilled when she checked out at sunrise the next day. On top of her room charge and taxes was a whopping "resort fee" that all guests get dinged with when they leave -- nearly $40 per day to use the pool.

"I asked to talk to the manager because I was just in and out — I arrived late and left early — to see if they would waive the fee since I didn't have any time to use the pool," Travel Masters' Orr recalls. "They just said, 'Nope. That's the way it is.'"

So-called resort fees are one way hotels manage to wring a little extra cash out of their guests while advertising what might appear to be reasonable nightly rates for rooms. The fees may or may not be clearly divulged on hotel websites or brochures. As Orr notes, they're just hidden costs that travellers need to ask about prior to booking.

"A lot of hotels are charging resort fees of anywhere from $20 to $40 per day," Orr says. "Anytime you book a resort you have to double-check. If you're comparing properties and one has a resort fee and another one doesn't, be sure to add on the resort fee to see what's a better value. It can really add up. You really need to be aware of these things in advance."

Deluxe Travel certified travel counsellor Linda May Dinsmore says that with some hotels around the globe slipping in charges for everything from Internet access to beach towels, pre-travel homework is essential.

"If consumers aren't aware of certain charges ahead of time, it can become very frustrating," Dinsmore says. "I always advise my clients that it is not what your holiday costs at the beginning but what it costs at the end that counts."

It's not just luxury lodgings that charge hidden fees; so too do cruise lines. To come home relaxed and without feeling ripped off, keep these tips in mind.

Don't be shy about getting the goods when you book.

"If it doesn't say on a hotel website if wireless access is included, ask right away," Orr says. "Go over all the details when you book or when you check in so you don't go in blind."

Besides charging guests to use the Internet, hotels can ding you for local phone calls, gym access, and parking, among other things.

Resort fees are especially common in Hawaii and Las Vegas, Dinsmore notes. If there aren't details about extra fees on a hotel website, call the spot's toll-free number and ask a real person straight-up.

If you're cruising, making sure you're not losing.

"A lot of cruise lines offer great low pricing to get you onboard but then the extra charges start to get tacked on, like restaurants charging surcharges to get in, activities like golf simulators charging hourly rates to participate, onboard coffee shops that are not included, and Internet fees that add up because the fluctuating signal can make being online painfully slow," Dinsmore says. "If you do your homework and know the exact costs in advance, you won't be nickel-and-dimed to death while travelling.

Dinsmore recommends waiting until you reach land to access the Internet. Find a port cafe that offers wireless and save yourself some cash. "If you need to be online quite a bit, then buy the higher-minute packages as the cost will work out less than buying it per minute," she says.

However, as with hotels, sometimes the term "all-inclusive" is legitimate. It's worth spending time before you travel to pore over details and do the math. Sometimes bumping up to the next level — say a deluxe room over a standard one — that initially looked too expensive might actually save you money in the long run.

"If you're not going for higher-end ships where everything is included, you might end up paying extra for things like cappuccinos. They might offer iced tea by the pool but pop is extra. It can get tricky," says Orr, adding that prepaid cards for pop work out to be less expensive than buying one at a time. She also notes that some cruise lines allow you to bring your own wine onboard.

Be cautious when booking coach tours.

Just like cruise vacations or tropical resorts, bus tours can tack on all sorts of unexpected fees.

"With European coach tours, someone may look at booking with a moderate style company, which looks great as a lead-in price, but then there are so many 'optional' tours, dinners, and entrance fees that are not included that it can all add up very quickly," Orr says.

"Look at where their hotels are located because if you're stuck way out of town, you'll end up paying a huge cab fare if you want to go into the city on your own," she adds. "Usually the higher-end tours have more centrally located hotels."

Define "five-star".

Occasionally, a property that's listed in promotional materials as five-star turns out to be three or four at best.

"There's not much recourse for travellers who pay in advance for what's described as a five-star hotel and they show up to find that calling it three stars would be generous," Orr says. "If something in Mexico is rated five stars, it might be four or four and a half because standards are different."

If she experiences a lodging that doesn't live up to its claims, she'll check out early if she can find a more suitable place nearby and will write a letter to the manager outlining why she left. But ideally she avoids such situations in the first place.

Research places on-line.

"I always look at Trip Advisor to get the goods," Orr says. Reading about real experiences by real people goes a lot further than flipping through advertisements.

Do Google searches using your hotel name or tour company to see what else pops up too.

There's no such thing as a free trip.

Surely you've been enjoying dinner at home only to get a phone call with a recorded voice congratulating you for winning a free trip or qualifying for an unbeatable deal on a cruise. According to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, there's nothing to celebrate.

"Always use a healthy dose of skepticism when receiving these solicitations whether it be by email, fax or telephone," the RCMP states. "This kind of solicitation will most likely be a travel scam. These illegitimate travel companies will ask for your credit card number and some personal information--hence possibly compromising your identity and your finances."