Why do ‘optional’ travel fees feel so mandatory?

Think you have a choice when you travel? Get outta here.

Don Klauser doesn’t. When he recently checked into a DoubleTree property near Austin, he says he noticed a $9.95 per day fee to connect to the Internet. He asked an employee, who quickly apologized for the charge.

“She admitted that she doesn’t like it and that they get a lot of complaints about it,” says Klauser, a retired business owner from Sherman, Texas. “But she said corporate demands it.”

DoubleTree considers in-room Wi-Fi an optional “added benefit,” but for guests such as Klauser, there’s really nothing optional about it. It’s like having electricity and running water in a room; he expects it to be included. And that’s one of the great disconnects during this frenetic summer travel season. Call it the myth of choice.

Travel companies claim customers have choices. But it doesn’t always feel that way. The mandatory “optional” fees range from charges that only look optional, but for most people are not, to those that are, in fact, not optional at all. Saying “no” to them is difficult, if not impossible.

Airlines may be the biggest offenders when it comes to mandatory optional fees. They claim passengers want low fares (which they do) and would rather have a “choice” about the fees they pay (which we don’t; we want to pay no fees). So they’re just giving us, their valued customers, options.

The options are laughable. How many air travelers do you know who don’t bring luggage? Or don’t want an advance seat assignment? Yet by unbundling these extras, airlines raked in $11 billion in extra fees last year, a 24% increase from 2014.

The strategy of parsing a ticket can backfire, says Manuel Chaure, a management consulting lead for Accenture Travel.

“Customers may feel deceived by the promise of a cheap flight, develop fee-related resentment which may evolve into switching airline carriers to avoid fees or spreading negative word-of-mouth,” he says. An Accenture survey reveals a stunning 68% of consumers turn to a different airline after being hit by an excessive “optional” fee if there are no alternative options over a certain route.

Of course, that brings us to another choice myth — that you even have a choice in airlines.

You kinda don’t. With just three remaining legacy carriers in the U.S. plus Southwest Airlines, competition is practically non-existent on some routes. Factor in the airline codesharing agreements, which offer airlines antitrust immunity, and you’re left wondering if competition has been drained from the entire industry. Yet cabin crew still claim we have a choice in airlines and they repeat that half-truth in every in-flight announcement. Maybe they should stop.

One of the worst of the optional mandatory fees is found in the hotel industry. There, you can see a low rate quoted online, but by the time you get to the “book” button, the property has added a $20-a-night “resort” fee for the use of the exercise room, pool and Wi-Fi, even if you use none of those amenities.

Hotels describe these fees as “options” for their guests, but they are really great options for them. In the first half of the year, the fees jumped 8% to an average of $19.52 a night, according to Resortfeechecker.com, a site that tracks the fees. The markets with the biggest increases: the Florida Keys (24%), Myrtle Beach, S.C. (22%) and Miami (20%).

But the fees are not optional at all — just as baggage fees, seat reservation fees and boarding passes aren’t really a choice for most travelers.

At least, that’s the view of Jeff Filipov, a technology consultant from South Hamilton, Mass. He recently booked a flight on United Airlines and discovered that the only seats left on the plane appeared to be ones that required a seat reservation fee. Filipov would have forked over the fee if he’d been flying with his family, in order to avoid being separated from his children. But he was traveling solo and knew that United would have to assign him a seat at the airport — something not always clearly communicated by airlines.

“I declined to choose, knowing that once I got to the airport I would ultimately be seated without a fee,” he says, adding, “The fee is a rip-off.”

The only way to end these “optional” fees is to do what Filipov did: Say no. A happy ending is possible. A few months after Klauser complained, the hotel he stayed in renovated its rooms, making basic Wi-Fi “free.” A faster connection will still cost him, though. But when no one listens, only government intervention can save us from these surcharges.

What are they waiting for?

How to tell if a fee is mandatory

Here are three questions that can help you determine if you’re dealing with a mandatory “optional fee.”

• When is it disclosed? If the fee is revealed at the beginning of your transaction, chances are the company views it as truly optional. The longer they wait to tell you about it, the more suspect it is. The most dishonest fees are added at the last minute, just before you click the “book” button.

• Is it something everyone needs? Fees for luggage, boarding passes and even Wi-Fi may seem like a choice, but look around. How many passengers are traveling without luggage? Or a smartphone? If a company is charging for something most people require when they travel, it’s more of a money grab than a choice.

• How hard is it to avoid? Mandatory “optional” fees occupy a gray area among items you almost always need but you technically don’t have to have. Travel companies don’t go out of their way to tell you they’re avoidable, so you may end up thinking you must pay for a seat assignment. The fine print tells you otherwise.

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