Just say no: If travelers refused to pay fees

If enough travelers stopped paying the travel industry’s infuriating surcharges and fees, would the unwanted add-ons simply disappear? Would extra charges for checked luggage, ticket change fees and mandatory hotel resort fees vanish into thin air?

Experts say they should. Readers such as Jan Jacobs wish they would.

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“You are in a position to start a movement called ‘Stop paying the travel extortion fees,’ ” says Jacobs, a retired librarian from Tempe, Ariz. “Your voice could start such a movement. I hope you will.”

Jacobs saw my recent story about the most outrageous travel fees. “They should be illegal,” she says.

They are not, but efforts to regulate them have stalled. Never fear, say some travel insiders. If enough travelers refused to pay, then the fees would stop.


The truth isn’t so simple. Yes, one or two travel surcharges have been dropped because people refused to pay them. For example, US Airways began charging for soft drinks a few years ago, and it tried to impose a “use-it-or-lose-it” policy on tickets. Both of those moves were rescinded after passengers revolted. But what we have now — a fee-based travel industry operating in business where competition has been all but squeezed out — can’t be fixed by market forces alone.

Consider what happened to Jenna Rose Robbins when she boarded a Norwegian Cruise Lines Mediterranean cruise with her best friend last summer. “When we booked the cruise, we were told it was all-inclusive,” says Robbins, an editor and Web consultant based in Berlin. Then she noticed a $12-per-day charge to her room, for “gratuities.”

She said “no.”

Fine, a cruise line representative told her. She could contest the “optional” fees once the cruise ended. She did and received a refund. Those fees have since been hiked, and guests seeking to challenge them have to fill out a special form.

So much for market forces.

Danielle Ford says “no” all the time when she flies on “ultra” low-cost airlines such as Spirit and Frontier, which are notorious for charging fees. She prints her own boarding pass, travels light and turns down optional items.

“I don’t select a seat,” says Ford, a photographer based in Columbus, Ohio. Though the airlines typically blink when she refuses to pay a fee for an advance seat assignment — often giving her the window seat she wants, anyway — the fees have continued unabated.

Fees are rampant in the airline industry. The ability to check a bag, once included in your ticket price, is extra. For the first time, airlines reported that airlines’ total baggage revenue broke the $1 billion mark in the first quarter of 2017. It doesn’t matter how often passengers say “no” or try to squeeze an extra-large carry-on into the overhead compartment.

Let’s not forget hotels and their onerous mandatory resort fees. My colleague Erica Sandberg recalls staying at a resort in Carlsbad, Calif., years ago. When she checked out, the bill was “terribly bloated” with a mandatory resort fee for extras such as high-speed and wireless Internet access in guest rooms, 24-hour access to the fitness center and, most galling, “charges for local and 800-access call connections.”

“I refused to pay the extras that were tacked on, and they backed down,” says Sandberg, a podcaster and consumer finance writer based in San Francisco. The resort, which has since changed owners, was even hauled into court because of the fees.

Did the resort fee disappear? Hardly. Not only are resort fees still here, but they’ve risen almost 9% in the first half of 2017, to an average $21 a night, according to a survey by Resortfeechecker.com.

Here’s one thing the free market defenders and I can agree on. It’s the perfect solution, which is the one Chick Gregg came up with after being stuck in Nassau on a weather delay. To get back to the mainland, his airline wanted to charge him even more fees.

“That was it,” he says. “It was time to take things into our own hands.”

And he did. He co-founded Air Unlimited (Air Unlimited), a small airline dedicated to service, which promises “no long lines, no baggage fees, and free parking.” It operates scheduled air service between Florida and the Bahamas.

The barriers to entry for new competitors in the travel industry remain far too high for most entrepreneurs. Whether it’s airlines, cruise lines, car rental companies or hotels, it sure seems as if we’re down to a few companies with a dominant market share. Consumers can say “no” until they’re blue in the face; nothing will change. Only thoughtful government regulation that discourages monopolistic behavior and gives a helping hand to start-ups like Gregg’s can fix this problem.

More: So you want to start an airline?

How to say ‘no’ — and mean it

• Tell the company. Then tell it again. It isn’t enough to refuse to pay a fee. You have to let the company know about your decision at the highest level. You can find executive contacts on my consumer advocacy site. If they don’t listen? Stop doing business with the company — and tell them.

• Start a movement. A concerted effort to stop paying a fee or surcharge is far likelier to succeed than a single person taking a stand. Companies faced with pushback from many customers sometimes back down. Try a crowdsourcing platform such as Change.org or a social network such as Care2.com.

• Tell your representative. Outrageous fees can be a violation of laws that prevent “unfair and deceptive” practices — and if they aren’t, your elected representative can introduce such a law. Here’s how to contact your congressional representative.

37 thoughts on “Just say no: If travelers refused to pay fees

  1. The “gratuity” charge on cruises is unfortunate (although it is disclosed in advance), but unlike, say, luggage fees, the gratuity goes directly into the pockets of the cleaning, dining, etc. staff, and it’s an expected part of their pay structure. If you refuse to pay them, the money comes directly out of the pockets of the crew members; it doesn’t deprive the cruise line itself of a single dime. Not paying it is like protesting the expected tip at restaurants by never leaving one.

    If you don’t support this scheme, then you need to find a travel provider that doesn’t charge them.

    1. If you are put in a situation (for example like an air plane or a cruise) where you are 100% depedentent on their service to be feed. You shouldn’t feel bad about rejecting the gratuity. They should be paying their staff appropriately. It’s not your fault.

      1. It’s not your fault, but nobody’s forcing you to go on that cruise either. Every cruise I’ve taken has made the existence and amount of the auto-gratuity very clear up-front. It’s not fair to the staff to take it out on them for their employer’s sub-par business practices. It’s like not tipping a waitress because you thought the chef didn’t season the food properly.

      2. But the point is they don’t pay the staff enough. Not paying a gratuity (either the suggested amount or an amount of your choosing) is stiffing the workers. It’s not going to change the employers’ behavior.

    2. Agreed. Also personally I find the gratuity quite reasonable and in fact we left a generous bit extra in cash for our steward at the end of our cruise because the service was so exceptional. The $12 a day we paid— we would have tipped out probably two or three times that much had we tipped each person that waited on us, helped us, or ran to get my coffee, etc individually each day.

    3. I suspect that the Cruise lines have a management fee for handling these gratuities as they have costs involved with the collection and distribution. I cannot prove this statement, but credit card fees, accounting fees, withholdings, etc. have a significant cost to the cruise lines.

      1. Payroll (like tax withholding) is a routine cost they have to bear anyway just to handle wages. Certainly deducting fees to process tips would not be the norm at, say, a restaurant in the US.

  2. Or y’know, do what people are doing these days…lying about their “service dogs” and “ESAs.” There was a “service dog” on my last flight that yapped the entire way. But of course it can’t be questioned, so that PAX just avoided the pet fee for the cost of a fake service dog vest. (About $20).

    1. I hate this “companion animal” concept that I’ve seen on planes and elsewhere. I don’t really understand it at all, aside from war veterans suffering from post-traumatic war stress syndrome that may need a companion dog (that is trained to be one and is usually well behaved on planes). Seeing eye/hearing ear dogs (legitimate service dogs) are one thing, as well as those for post-traumatic war stress syndrome but the “companion animal” concept is SO heavily abused by SO many people that the few people that legitimately have one they travel with get unfairly scorned. I’ve seen or heard about companion dogs, cats, pigs, ferrets and birds being taken on planes and ultimately causing trouble. Come on! Where does this end? It should have ended with specially trained companion dogs, but even that still gets abused.

      1. There was the famous emotional support pig on a plane a few years ago — and the woman flying with her emotional support turkey during Thanksgiving time — no idea if that one was a one way trip

        1. I heard about an pet pig (not necessarily emotional support) on a USAirways flight back in 2000. Supposedly the pig slept through the whole flight, but when the plane was landing, it got startled and woke up, and basically went “hog wild” up and down the aisle (sorry, I couldn’t resist saying that). USAirways subsequently banned pigs from flying in the main cabin.

          1. The rhetorical phrase “when pigs fly” has sort of lost its power. Now comes a somewhat un pc comment. Why is the US (as far as I know) the only country that legitimizes the concept of “an emotional service animal”? Need to take your ESA gnu on a plane or into no Gnu housing? No problem. Try that in any other country.

        1. Unf___in’ believable. Whatever emotional support a snake may provide, how is it ever a necessity for travel? Something has to be done about this B.S.

          I, on the other hand, paid $150 to bring my wife’s cat in its own carrier in the cabin one time. Should have claimed it was for emotional support and saved $150.

    2. Actually, if a service animal or ESA is yappy before the flight, it can be prohibited from boarding, vest or not; this is allowed under both the ADA and ACAA. (And I imagine the airline would have a strong case for banning it from future flights.)

      1. You’d think but the airlines are getting really hedgy about unboarding folks because of behavior. Just look at the “Activist” who is claiming “racism” because she was mouthing off and a white pilot told her she wasn’t going to be flying.

  3. If everyone, or close to everyone, said “no” to these bogus fees/surcharges, they would disappear in a lot of cases. The problem is, a few people—–or even 30-40%–saying “no” is not going to change things for the most part. And getting 98(or 92, or 95)% of people to say “no” is not easy, for all kinds of reasons.

    1. I question how do you “say no”. If we buy basic economy tickets, then the airlines say we “are asking for it”. If we don’t buy it, they say “see, only a small percentage of people take it, so most people know and avoid it, and there is no problem with keeping an offering for a small segment of customers”

      damned if you do, damned if you dont

      1. It’s a lot easier to “say no” in some cases than others. Resort Fees would be one example. If suddenly almost everyone took their Vegas hotel business to a place without a resort fee(meaning, chains off the strip with no casino,etc), hotels likely would re-think those fees, since then they would be losing massive business. Do I think that will happen?? Absolutely not. Too many people don’t care about the price (witness folks buying gas for 50 cents more than at the station across the street), business travelers who aren’t picking up their own tab, and folks who “have to stay on the strip”, etc, that will doom that idea to failure.

        1. “witness folks buying gas for 50 cents more than at the station across the street”

          Where I live, there are two gas stations…one is easy to access and have EASY access to the directions that I need to go after I get gas (the station with gas that is more expensive)…the another one is ‘harder’ to access and have limited access to the directions that I need to go after I get gas.

          When I have time, I will go to the station with ‘limited’ access since they have the cheaper gas (usually $ 0.15 to $0.20 lower) at night when traffic is extremely less. When I don’t have time and/or it is during the ‘rush traffic’, I will go to the gas station with the easy access…it cost more but it is a convenience that I am willing to pay for (i.e. I don’t fill up my car at this station but I get enough for the day).

          1. While the 2 gas stations here are pretty much equal in access, the 2 stations you mentioned illustrate my point re “paying for convenience”. Much like people in Phoenix choosing the more expensive station due to it’s easy access, many people will also choose convenience in hotel location(” I want to stay on The Strip so I don’t have to walk or drive that much”) even if they have to pay resort fees to do so.

      2. “…there is no problem with keeping an offering for a small segment of customers”

        Airlines came out with ‘Premium Economy’ and it was a bust…people are not willing to pay for it. It is hard for the airlines to keep their ‘Premium Economy’ cabin at the same number of seats.

        1. Premium economy is different from basic in that there is a hard product difference. They spent money on new seats and better service. Baisc – once they created the fare codes and soft product restrictions, there is very little marginal cost in keeping it around

        2. Sorry…..people buy it all the time. Some value the difference, some don’t. What failed was American’s attempt at “More Room Throughout Coach” because that lost seats and the resulting higher fares did not recoup the money from the lost seats.

  4. The fee train has left the station and I don’t think it will stop. Especially when people use third party websites and book solely on the lowest price, not considering the extras.

    But your argument is that if enough travelers refuse to pay, the fees will disappear. The challenge is that there are multiple types of travelers. Some travelers have no issues with the fees. Others are price-sensitive. Business travelers, for example, can often expense the fees.

    1. Agreed. The fee train has left the station and it isn’t coming back.
      …. or some travelers like myself, just consider the fees as part of the total fare package and either accept the fees or don’t

  5. A few years ago, we flew into Las Vegas late at night. Part of our stay was being paid for by a company for a meeting, but we paid for 1 or 2 extra nights. When I saw the resort fee for the first night, I asked for it to be removed, since we had landed so late that I had no chance to use the amenities. They took it off the bill.

  6. The reason for fees is simple…to have the lowest price so that a fare or rate will be the lowest and show up first in the farerate search engines. As long as the public continues to buy this way, the race to the bottom will continue.

    There are some readers of this blog that wants ‘champagne’ features like flight attendants carving chateaubriand on rolling silver carts; only four seats per row instead of six seats (domestic economy); check in 6 bags; coast-to-coast fares at $ 100; free inflight WiFi; fully refundable fare; unlimited free changes; etc. at a beer-bottle budget (i.e. low fares).

    What gets me are the readers that think that if the compensation of airline management is reduced to nothing that they can get their ‘champagne’ features at a beer-bottle budget. They are the same people that believes if the government just tax the ‘rich’ that the deficit and national debt will vanish (i.e. the top 1% {Adjusted Gross Income of $ 465,000 or higher} already pays 40% of all federal taxes collected and taxpayers with an AGI of $ 250,000 pays 51 of all federal taxes collected…EVEN if the government confiscates the wealth of the individuals on the recent Forbes 400 richest Americans…they will only collect $ 2 trillion {assuming that the liquidation into cash doesn’t drive down the values} which only cover 10% of $ 20 trillion debt).

    1. I agree that it is fine to have different companies with different offerings. I don’t expect delta and spirit to have the same product, same service, same IROP recovery. And I agree that the public hurts themselves by using OTAs and shopping for the lowest price

      As for the compensation and tax thing, I don’t know anyone on this site who ever advocates for a different tax policy, seems you have some strong feelings there…

  7. A gratuity is something FREELY given – it is not an obligation although many view it as such. Call it a fee for staff services but to call an obligatory charge a gratuity is to turn the word upside down. By the way I have traveled with Grand Circle Tours and all tips are voluntary. A suggested range of amounts is given, but one simply puts cash in an envelope and drops it in a box – no name added. And many do tip more than the suggested amount because the service is usually outstanding.

  8. When my wife and I take a cruise, part of our budget includes monies set aside for the “for your convenience” gratuities. And, to a degree, for those people with which we have limited direct contact, it is a convenience.

    For those with whom we have more direct contact (such as the dining room staff), we are more likely to live more of a tip. Note trying to weasel out on the others. You simply see more of the latter – and are more likely to think of them.

    I have been faced with other fees when checking out of a hotel. I remember once I was presented with a “gym fee”. I questioned it and was told it was set aside in case I went to the gym. I asked them to take it off. I had been to the pool, but not the gym. (We are not “gym” people. We much prefer to either run or walk for our exercise). To my surprise, the clerk did not bat an eye. He simply said “okay” and removed.

    Some of the extra fees for flying are a different story. When applicable, I will pay to have the airline take care of my bag. I have pinched nerves in my back and cannot lug the suitcase around. My wife and I will “double up” and use only one check-in bag. I use a backpack as my carry on.

    I will sometimes spring for seats. We don’t fly a lot. But, when we do, I want to get my wife a window seat, and myself an aisle seat.

    I never opt for the fee-based refreshments.

    And, (I may be mistaken here), but some of the loyalty programs my wife has signed us up for (I think the hotel/motel program is one) are such that some of the “fees” are included – internet, … Since we prefer those hotels anyway, it works out.

    Finally, some companies do listen to customers. I know ours does. I work in mainframe operating system software development. Many of the practices we have in place (especially our “support line”) are the direct result of customer likes/dislikes.

    PS: Interesting article, and interesting responses.

  9. Interesting column today. I am so surprised that there do not seem to be any law suits on the books against these fees. Cruise lines are getting creative changing their wording from tipping / gratuities to service fees. That way you can not say that you are “removing” your tips from the bill. I have no idea why these resort fees and service fees cannot be incorporated into the total cost, but I suspect it has to do with tax laws. Just say no sounds fantastic, but I see people every day that will “never” stay here or fly on that airline again; they change their minds for money. It is time for the government to get involved and stop this nonsense. I’ll bet they won’t. The lobbyists will make sure of that.

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