Just say no: If travelers refused to pay fees

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By Christopher Elliott

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.

“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 travelers 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.

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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 Both of those moves were rescinded after passengers revolted.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.”

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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. (Related: Hidden hotel fees are back with a vengeance. Here’s how to avoid them.)

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. (Diane Moskal found a $100 fare discount in Viking River Cruises’ brochure for booking the Moscow to St. Petersburg itinerary with an e-check.)

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 our site, or you can contact our consumer advocacy team. 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.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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