TRICKS OF THE TRAVEL TRADE
With so many cost variables to consider, budgeting a vacation can get difficult. And to make matters more challenging, many travel companies — from flight booking sites to boutique hotels — often employ hidden fees and other underhanded techniques to squeeze extra cash from travelers. Take care in planning your next excursion to avoid these subtle ways the travel industry picks your pocket.
PRICING ROUND TRIP FLIGHTS AT A HIGHER RATE
It may be cheaper to get to your destination and back by buying two one-way tickets rather than a single round-trip one, thanks to the difference in pricing methods between standard and discount carriers. To combine one-way tickets for greater value, book through different airlines or sites such as Kayak and Skyscanner, which compile itineraries automatically that combine tickets from separate airlines.
CHARGING HIGHER PRICES TO HUB CITIES
Airlines charge their highest prices for flights to "hub" cities that get the most air traffic, with lower fees for flights to smaller destinations, which often transfer through the hubs. With a technique called "hidden city ticketing," travelers can game this inequitable payment system by booking trips to smaller cities, then de-boarding during transfer at the nearby hub that is their actual destination. This trick requires you to bring only carry-on luggage and book one-way flights, however, and be aware that it violates most airlines' rules of carriage.
MISLEADING WITH LOWER FLIGHT PRICES
Booking sites and online aggregators for flights may fudge the truth a bit in their findings. They do this by mis-categorizing flights that stop but do not deboard as "direct" and by displaying prices a few dollars lower than the cost when you click to book, enticing travelers under false pretenses.
HIDING PHONE BOOKING FEES
Avoid booking flights over the phone, as most airlines charge extra for the personal help. Instead, call for anything that needs clarification, then book online.
CHARGING PRICEY REFUND FEES
Most airlines charge steep refund fees for ticket cancellations, running upward of $200 for domestic flights and $750 for international. Avoid the charges for inevitable changes of plan by checking the airlines' change/cancellation fee policies before booking.
ADDING FREQUENT FLYER SURCHARGES
Frequent Flyer miles can be redeemed for flight deals through many airlines, but some water down the savings with change fees and awards surcharges, such as the $75 fee for booking less than 21 days out from the travel date on United and American flights. United passengers can reduce the close-in booking charges by earning airline elite Silver (reducing the fee to $50) or Gold (to $25) status.
INCLUDING UNEXPECTED FUEL SURCHARGES
Fuel surcharges can unexpectedly add hundreds to the price of a ticket, especially on international flights, even for passengers redeeming miles and children sitting in a parent's lap. Some airlines, such as United, JetBlue, and Allegiant, don't add fuel surcharges for awards travel.
HIDING BAGGAGE FEES
Most flyers know to expect fees for their checked baggage by now, but it's easy to forget discount airlines such as Spirit and Frontier will also charge up to $65 for carry-on bags as well. United took up a similar practice by prohibiting Basic Economy flyers from stowing bags in the overhead compartment, instead forcing them to pay the $30 checked baggage fee.
CHARGING EXIT FEES
According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, 56 countries charge entry and/or exit fees, though many go unnoticed as they're included in the airline ticket taxes. In some countries, however, American travelers must pay less-transparent entry or exit fees — sometimes in cash — at the airport, which can come as a nasty surprise upon departing.
PROVIDING (NOT SO) FREE WI-FI
Many airports proudly advertise their free Wi-Fi, but many still charge travelers to get online; some may still allow only visits to select tourism sites for free. Check the airport and airline policies regarding payment for Wi-Fi to avoid unexpected costs, or consider turning your phone into a hotspot for use in the airport — just be sure your mobile carrier doesn't charge an extra fee for it.
INFLATING FOOD AND DRINK PRICES
Once travelers have passed the security checkpoint, they have significantly reduced options for food and drink, so airport businesses charge accordingly. The only way to avoid inflated prices, potentially $5 for bottled water or $2 extra for a Big Mac by bringing a refillable water bottle and packaged snacks to curb your hunger.
BLOCKING OUT SEATS
Many airlines block out seats on reservable flights, not just to give buyers the impression of scarcity, but also to accommodate last-minute business customers and preferred travelers. This may be the case if you can't find adjoining seats when booking, and sometimes can be sorted out by booking seats with an airline representative over the phone.
CHARGING MORE FOR GROUP TICKETS
If you're flying in a group and looking to curtail costs, try shopping for airfare one passenger at a time, as this will sometimes result in a lower per-ticket price. Airline reservation systems use identical prices for all tickets in a single reservation, even when some of the seats available would cost less individually.
ADJUSTING HIGHER RATES BASED ON POINT-OF-SALE LOCATION
Flight prices can fluctuate considerably based on a ticket's point-of-sale, or the place where the transaction is completed. That's why international and especially domestic flights within foreign nations are often hundreds of dollars cheaper when bought in that country's borders (even online). Take advantage of point-of-sale discrepancies from home by changing your point-of-sale city.
CREATING DIFFERENT INTERNATIONAL PRICES ON TRAVEL SITES
After narrowing flight options for international travel, look at the foreign versions of airline sites (such as britishairways.co.uk instead of britishairways.com). The price may be lower, even if payment is in a different currency.
ADDING TRAVEL AGENT MARKUPS
Travel agents can be a great resource to help travelers book unique accommodations and excursions that require inside information, but some agencies can also impose unfair markups to take advantage of unsuspecting customers. The U.K.-based Flight Centre, for example, was found to charge 23 percent more for the same flight when booked by an older, less-savvy caller.
ADDING IN THIRD PARTY HOTEL BOOKING FEES
When arranging a hotel stay, guests can either book through the hotel or a third-party site. Booking through a third party may often seem the cheaper option but can come with hidden fees on sites such as Hotels.com or HotelsCombined. Many hotels will match other rates, and booking directly will allow you to earn rewards and book onsite amenities.
CHARGING AN EXTRA RESORT FEE
Resort fees are one of the most arbitrary expenses hotels may tack on to your checkout bill, potentially adding an extra 10 percent each night to even a prepaid total. Hotels must disclose such fees, so read the fine print to guard against resort fees that compounds your room rate deceptively.
BUILDING IN RESTOCKING FEES FOR HOTEL MINIBARS
CHARGING FOR HOTEL PARKING
ADDING ON ENERGY SURCHARGES
To offset power costs, many hotels now charge guests a small energy surcharge, which usually hovers around $4 per day. Some resorts such as Atlantis in the Bahamas will charge $10 or more daily, however, so in this case, try offsetting such fees by complaining and negotiating a better rate with the hotel staff.
CHARGING MORE FOR "ALL-INCLUSIVE" PERKS
CHARGING DOUBLE FOR RENTAL INSURANCE
Even after booking a car rental online, companies will always tempt passengers with rental insurance upon pickup. They won't mention, however, that your existing car insurance and most credit cards you might be using to pay may already provide enough collision insurance for rentals. Check your card's terms, but be prepared to pay for damages upfront before getting reimbursed.
LIMITING RENTAL OPTIONS
Domestic travelers have essentially only three rental car companies to choose from: Avis, which owns Budget and Zipcar; Hertz, which owns Dollar and Thrifty; and Enterprise, which owns Alamo and National. This explain why the companies often have little variation in prices, but travelers can find cheaper rentals through Turo, which is essentially AirBnB for cars.
SURCHARGING FOR YOUNGER DRIVERS
Drivers under 25 years old were once banned entirely from renting cars, but today they're just subject to an additional daily fee to account for their statistically high rate of accidents. These start at $20 to $30 or more for drivers between ages 18 and 21, so if that applies to you, be sure to consider extra costs before reaching the rental counter and find out if there's a way to waive the surcharge.
TACKING ON REFUELING FEES
SCAMMING WITH FAKE AIRLINE WEBSITES
PASSING ALONG CRUISE PORT FEES
Port fees are what cruise ships have to pay local governments each time they dock at a port of call, and most companies pass on those fees to travelers, who may see hundreds added to their bills as a result. These will usually be revealed as part of the fare before you book a cruise, but double-check to make sure they're included particularly on little-known cruise lines.
BUILDING IN BEVERAGE GRATUITY FEES
Many cruise lines add a 15 percent gratuity fee to all beverages, even if they're not brought to you by waitstaff and are included in the fare. Find out if your cruise charges any automatic gratuity before you begin a binge for the night or tip any server on top of what's already included.
CHARGING OVERSEAS ATM FEES
It can often be hard to find an ATM affiliated with your home bank while traveling, particularly overseas. Avoid the extra charge by opening an account with a financial services firm that refunds ATM fees.
HIDING FOREIGN TRANSACTION FEES
Paying for goods and services with a credit card while traveling abroad may incur big foreign transaction fees. Avoid the extra expense by signing up for a credit card that doesn't have this fee well before leaving.