New ways to find hidden travel fees

When you travel, there’s a fee for everything. Change an airline ticket, pay a fee. Forget to fill your rental car’s gas tank, pay a fee. Cancel your hotel reservation, pay a fee.

Travel companies may have run out of new things for which to charge you, not to mention the excuses for charging them (and don’t you dare say we “asked” for any of these extras), so what’s there left to do?

Just one thing: Find a better way to hide them online.

Consider what happened to Susan Weinstock when she booked a flight online recently. “When I went to choose the seats, the only ones that they show being available are those that cost more,” says Weinstock, who works for a nonprofit organization in Washington. “Then, in tiny print they say, ‘If you don’t want to pay for your seat we’ll assign it at check-in.’”

That fine print, common among many airlines this summer, is bound to scare a lot of passengers to pay the extra fee, believing incorrectly that if they don’t, they won’t have a seat on the plane.

“It’s the attempted deception that really bothers me,” says Weinstock.

She’s not alone. Whether you’re flying, driving or walking, you’ll find old fees hidden in new ways. Travel companies say the fees are necessary and their disclosure is legal. Their customers beg to differ. As always, it’s buyer beware.

Fees, says Ron Peri, the CEO of Radixx International, a reservation system used by airlines, are a “fact of life.”

“The reason is simple,” he adds. “Airlines can’t achieve consistent profitability if they only sell seats.”

The trend started years ago, when the internet allowed customers to see every available fare, letting them choose the cheapest tickets. Which is exactly what they did. “This placed a major downward pressure on fares, making it very hard for most airlines to survive without generating ancillary income,” he explains.

The only way to make money: add fees after the seat purchase, for everything from confirmed seat reservations to priority boarding. Some of the airlines that use Radixx generate one-third of their revenues from fees — enough to make the difference between a profit and a loss. It’s a trend that’s happening across the entire industry.

Vast tracts of the travel landscape remain fertile territory for poorly disclosed fees today. Consider restaurants, which advertise low menu prices but then pressure guests into leaving a 20% tip. Yes, you can refuse, but you’ll incur the wrath of your server. Or a car service, which quotes you a rate and then adds fees for fuel, parking, an “international arrival” fee and my personal favorite, a “safety assurance” fee.

“This method of doing business is one of the reasons the chauffeur industry is perceived as old-school and expensive,” admits Adam Parken, a spokesman for Blacklane, a professional driver service based in Berlin.

But what happens when consumers get wise to these ancillaries? What happens when they say, “We know you’re trying to make your product look cheaper than it really is. And we’re not buying it”?

Sadly, there’s only one thing left to do: Companies must find new ways to conceal the fees, showing them only when they’re required.

Why? If you see a surcharge like a resort fee or a refueling fee at the start of your reservation process, you might abandon the booking and look elsewhere. But if you don’t see them until the end, or even the check-out process, you’re less likely to walk away because you’re already invested in the purchase.

In recent weeks, travelers have complained about tricky new ways these fees are hidden when they book on the internet. It’s not just small, grayed-out notifications that are impossible to read. It’s clever web design that hides notifications below the first screen, in pop-up windows that may be blocked by your browser, or that appear to take advantage of small phone screens by forcing you to scroll sideways to see the surcharge.

Usually, these extras must be shown eventually — the Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Transportation have “full fare” and disclosure rules that require it. But everything up until the moment you click on the “book” button is relatively unregulated.

Customers don’t always have to lose, though. Phil Fair, a retired engineer from Oak Park, Ill., recently was broadsided by a fee for filling the tank of his rental car. When he returned the vehicle, an agent said since he hadn’t purchased the prepaid fuel option, and since his tank wasn’t “all the way” full, he’d have to pay for a new tank of gas. Gotcha!

But Fair called foul.

“I showed him my gasoline purchase receipt,” he says. It showed he’d just refilled the tank before bringing the car back. “The agent subtracted the fee from my bill.”

Where the hidden fees are

Here’s how to spot “ancillary” fees when you travel

Don’t get cute
If you’re booking online, avoid pop-up blockers, unconventional browsers, or anything that might interfere with the normal display process. Why? Clever operatives can hide their disclosures in places that can’t be seen if you’re browsing in an unconventional way.

Use a big screen
Avoid making a reservation on a tiny phone screen — that’s just asking for trouble. Instead, find a computer, laptop or tablet with ample real estate. Can’t read the fine print? Zoom in! (On my vintage MacBook, it’s COMMAND + to enlarge the font in Chrome.)

Review the grand total
Almost always, you’ll find every required extra, including taxes and fees, as part of the “final” charge. When you book an airline ticket or hotel room, there’s still time to abandon the booking and go elsewhere.

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