Families are being squeezed on all sides by surging mortgage, energy and food costs. Free products and services have rarely been so valuable in keeping household budgets under control – yet they are disappearing quickly.
Anaya Suresh*, a 24-year-old from London, was shocked to find she and her family were denied free tap water at a local restaurant this summer.
“We were out for dinner, and the waiters told us that they had no tap water,” she said. “So we had to pay £4 instead – but it came out in jugs and was clearly from the taps.”
Martyn James, a consumer rights campaigner, said that such “micro-charges” had proliferated since the pandemic.
“But people are starting to watch their pennies more closely,” he said. “These extra charges are starting to add up and we all need to be mindful about what we are paying for.”
Extra travel charges
Once, people going on holiday together would not have to worry about sitting together on the plane – a smart booking system would simply group them all together.
But airlines now cash in by charging their customers extra to reserve seats. For holidaymakers flying with easyJet, a standard seat reservation price ranges from £0.99 to £8.99. At Ryanair, it costs anywhere from £3 to £15.
EasyJet said that its algorithm tries to seat families together if they choose not to buy seats. It added: “Families are allocated seats together more than 99pc of the time.”
Picking up and dropping off travellers at airports now also costs more. Last spring, Gatwick airport announced that there would be a minimum £5 charge applied to drop-off zones in both of its terminals for 10 minutes, plus £1 for each additional minute up to 20 minutes.
Jonathan Pollard, of Gatwick Airport, said: “We know that a drop-off charge is not going to be popular with everyone, but we have just lost £465m and more than 40pc of our staff, so this new revenue stream will help us to protect the remaining jobs.”
Heathrow airport followed suit in November last year, and now charges £5 any time a vehicle enters the terminal drop-off areas. Failure to pay results in a £80 fee, which is reduced to £40 if it is paid within 14 days.
A spokesman for Heathrow said it was put in place to reduce airport-related traffic. He added: “A free drop-off option is available at Heathrow’s Long Stay car parks, where passengers can take a free bus transfer to the terminal.”
Manchester Airport introduced drop-off charges in 2018, which cost £5 for five minutes and £6 for 10 minutes directly outside the terminal. Anyone who stays longer than 10 minutes is charged £25. A spokesman said: “We are one of the few UK airports to still offer a free drop-off option, with a five-minute bus transfer from the free drop-off area to the terminal entrance. This approach has significantly reduced congestion."
Mr James added that dating websites and apps were another area where consumers were expected to pay more for services that came at no extra cost to businesses.
“When online dating first started, most of it was free,” he said. “But now people are expected to pay for services that come at no extra costs to these companies – such as looking at more profiles or the ability to send direct emails to other users.”
Popular dating app Tinder has a tiered subscription service. Tinder Platinum, which gives users unlimited likes and allows them to message others without “matching” first, costs £5.97 per month if users opt for a year-long package, according to the price comparison website Datingroo.
Rival app Bumble offers a similar premium membership, BumbleBoost, and costs £11.99 per month if users opt for a six-month package.
A Tinder spokesman said: “For our members who want to match with new people more efficiently, we offer three tiers of subscription.”
Cars have become a new hotspot for extra subscription fees. Last month BMW rolled out a new add-on service that lets drivers activate heating in their front seats and steering wheels, if they did not purchase the feature when they originally bought the vehicle. It began charging customers £15 per month to switch on the heated seats in their cars. Otherwise they must pay £350 for unlimited access.
BMW said that it gives customers the opportunity to add selected features which they did not order when the vehicle was built. A spokesman added: “This is particularly useful for secondary owners, as they now have the opportunity to add features that the original owner did not choose.”
BMW is not the only manufacturer to introduce subscription fees. Jaguar charges for its ‘InControl’ navigation feature. It is free for the first three years after purchase, and then costs £89 for a one-year renewal, or £129 for a three-year renewal.
Tesla also charges its drivers for full access to its “connectivity” features. Its standard package enables the navigation system in the car, but its premium package adds access to live traffic visualisation, satellite-view maps and media streaming, among other features. This comes free on new orders of the Model S and X bought on or after July 2018, but then costs £9.99 per month.
*name changed for privacy purposes