Have you experienced travel sticker shock lately? Maybe you showed up at the airport with two suitcases and walked away with a much lighter wallet after visiting the baggage-check desk. Perhaps you rented a car and drove away with a few hundred dollars in collision-damage waiver insurance you didn't know you needed. Or maybe you got socked with hotel charges for using the Wi-Fi and parking your car. These fees and others like them are annoying at best, and severely expensive at worst. But here's a secret: You don't necessarily have to pay them.
Before your next trip, arm yourself with this list of sneaky travel fees. A bit of research, a bit of planning, and a willingness to travel light might just save you big bucks. And remember, to stay abreast of the often-confusing and ever-changing world of airline surcharges, you can always check our continuously updated Airline Fees: The Ultimate Guide.
Now more than ever, booking a flight in-person or over the phone will cost you. Fees currently range from $5 to $45 per ticket—a hefty "convenience fee" just for completing a transaction. With the exception of Southwest, virtually every major air carrier now adds a surcharge for non-Internet bookings, so avoid this sneaky fee by booking online. With many online travel agencies now temporarily eliminating booking fees, you can save online regardless of whether or not you book directly with the travel supplier.
Seat selection fees
Let's say you've heeded my advice and booked your flight online. Good job! But the hard work of avoiding extra fees is far from over. Now comes the seat-selection challenge. Before you choose a seat, be sure the read your carrier's fine print to make sure doing so is free. Hint: If you're booking with AirTran, Spirit, United, US Airways, or Virgin America, it's probably not. (JetBlue charges for six "extra legroom" rows, but the majority of seats do not incur a fee.) Surcharges range from $6 to $349, depending on the airline and desired seat. If you're not picky about where you sit, err on the side of caution and let the airline choose your seat for you when you check in online, at the airport kiosk, or in person.
Speaking of the airport check-in process, don't let your guard down there, either. With the exception of JetBlue and Southwest, every major domestic carrier charges extra for all checked luggage. Fees range from $15 to $50 for the first and second checked bag. If you add a third bag, the rates climb even higher. As such, the cheapest way to fly nowadays is with a well-packed carry-on bag.
If you do have to check a bag, limit yourself to just one and make sure to pack as efficiently as possible. Overweight bag charges can add an extra $25 to $175 to your bill. Fortunately, this is one surcharge that's entirely preventable. Check out our packing tips to learn easy ways to make the most of your suitcase space.
Now here's where things get sneaky. US Airways, United, and Spirit require you to check your bags in advance online or suffer an extra fee at the airport. These are three of the same airlines that charge you extra for choosing a seat online! So if you're going to check your bag with US Airways or United, do it online and pay $15 to $25 instead of $20 to $30 for the same transaction at the airport. Spirit also has a slightly higher fee for bags checked in person versus online—$19 online, $25 at the airport.
In most cases, though, you shouldn't see a different price if you check your bag online or at the airport. At press time, only US Airways, United, and Spirit customers need to be aware of this tricky scheme.
Excessive rental car insurance charges
Collision-damage waiver insurance (CDW) is a big profit-maker for rental car companies. What they don't want you to know is that in many cases, it's also way more insurance than you actually need.
They usually get you at the airport rental counter when you're weary from a long flight and more susceptible to sneaky fees. Hold your ground! You may already have CDW coverage through your credit card company. Before you book, call your credit card provider to see if you're covered. Then, make sure you use that card when you make your reservation. When you show up at the rental car counter, you can safely decline the extra CDW fee—which, by the way, is often as expensive as the actual car rental charge itself.
Hidden hotel fees
There's nothing more frustrating than getting an itemized list of extra fees when you check out of your hotel. Save yourself some anguish and find out what services incur an extra charge right when you check in.
Questions to ask:
• Is there a charge to use Wi-Fi in your room or common areas?
• Are there any fees to use the business center, pool, fitness room, or sauna?
• Is there a complimentary breakfast and/or coffee service?
• What are the charges for in-room movies, the mini-bar, and the like?
• Is there any fee to park my car?
Being informed up front can save you from some unpleasant surprises later.
Currency exchange surcharges
As a general rule of thumb, you'll get both the worst exchange rates and the highest transaction fees by changing money at an airport kiosk or other institution that exists solely to exchange money. A better alternative is to use your debit card to get cash from a local ATM and your credit card for retail purchases.
Even these options aren't risk-free, however, because they may also come with hidden surcharges. Call your bank and credit card provider ahead of time to find out which fees, if any, are associated with overseas use. Ask how your financial institution determines exchange rates, what surcharges are added to standard transactions (e.g., ATM use and in-store purchases), and if there are any other fees you should be aware of. You can then make the savviest decision on how to exchange money during your overseas vacation.
Remember—in every case, it's always good to be a squeaky wheel and ask questions up front, before any transaction is complete. Combing through fine print is always a good strategy as well, and can reduce the likelihood of expensive surprises. Being well informed is the best way to save.
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