The most unfair fees in travel

Just a few weeks before Dennis Main’s European riverboat cruise, a disc in his spine ruptured, confining him to a wheelchair. “My surgeon warned me that any long travel or excessive activity would be dangerous,” he says.

Main’s options were bad and worse: He could pay another $6,000 to reschedule his trip later, or he could send his wife to Europe solo.

But oddly, that would cost more, too. “They want to charge her a $3,000 single supplement,” says Main, who works for the state of California.

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A single supplement is one of the most universally hated fees in travel, but it’s just one of several customer-unfriendly policies the industry has embraced in order to squeeze more money from travelers. Single supplements are premiums of up to 100 percent of the cost of a cruise or tour charged to a solo tourist.

Main’s cruise line said it could have helped him if he’d purchased travel insurance, but he says that felt like extortion.

“Time and again I heard, ‘We can’t — it’s our policy’,” he says. Fortunately, his wife had charged part of the vacation on her credit card, which covered a portion of his cancellation fee. He also received a partial refund from the cruise line.

“Single supplements are one of the last bastions of discrimination,” says Diane Lee, a frequent traveler and author from Adelaide, Australia. “It’s also a stupid and short-sighted business practice, considering how many solo travelers there are now.”

Travel companies say single supplements are necessary because their prices are based on double occupancy. When people like Main’s wife or Lee have a cabin to themselves, the cruise line is forfeiting revenue for other activities like restaurants or bars.

The fee is bogus, as far as this consumer advocate is concerned. In Main’s case, at least, if the cruise line had resold his cabin, it should have offered him a full refund instead of pocketing the money.

But it’s not the only unfair fee. Another is the “fuel surcharge” added to the price of airline tickets. It’s an annoyance not just to air travelers, but also for tour operators like smarTours. “The widespread manipulation of the fuel surcharge by airlines is unfair and harmful to travelers,” says Greg Geronemus, smarTours’ co-CEO.

For years, as oil prices surged, airlines insisted that fuel surcharges were beyond their control and an accurate reflection of the rising commodity cost. “Now that oil has dropped by more than 50 percent over the last 15 months, we have not seen anything close to a proportional drop in fuel surcharges,” Geronemus says. “In fact, many airlines have not decreased their fuel surcharges whatsoever.”

Travelers believe airlines are keeping the difference between the actual fuel costs and the artificially high surcharge. What’s the solution? If airlines simply reported their actual fuel costs for each flight, as opposed to adding an arbitrary fuel surcharge, that would be a good start, Geronemus says. But how about airlines just fold the cost of fuel into the fare? Isn’t fuel part of the cost of running an airline?

While we’re on the subject of airlines, let’s talk about the elephant in the room: non-refundable airline tickets. And yes, they are usually totally non-refundable, even if you get sick, have jury duty or a close relative dies. Airlines claim they offer “options” for travelers who want refundable tickets. Just buy a flexible ticket, which costs three to four times more than a non-refundable one.

That’s not only impractical, but it also insults our intelligence. Here’s what makes sense to air travelers: Flexible, refundable tickets priced at a modest and reasonable premium. Oh, and while you’re at it, why not refund tickets when you resell the seat? Enough with the double-dipping, airlines.

Which brings us to perhaps the most unfair fee of all: the mandatory hotel resort fee. You know what I’m talking about, don’t you? You pull up a rate online for a bargain hotel in Las Vegas, only to find that you have to pay an extra $20 a night as a “resort” fee. It’s even worse than the airline fuel surcharge because, for the moment, it doesn’t have to be revealed until just before you’re ready to book a hotel. “It’s a lack of transparency,” says Linda Kundell, a public speaking coach from New York who has represented many travel companies as a publicist.

The solution is super easy. The government should require hotels to quote a full rate up front. But the Federal Trade Commission, which is tasked with enforcing how hotels advertise their prices, has been reluctant to require such disclosure, saying it would exceed its mandate. Most travelers would disagree, but then again, most travelers are not staff attorneys who work for the federal government.

The travel industry is riddled with unfair policies. You can avoid many of them, but not all of them. If companies can’t do the right thing, maybe it’s time for the government to step up and help us.

How to avoid unfair fees

• Single supplement: Some cruise lines, such as Norwegian and P&O, offer single cabins. And some tour operators (like Gate 1 and Classic Journeys) charge modest single supplements. If you’re thinking of traveling alone, ask before you make your reservation.

• Non-refundable tickets: Southwest Airlines has some of the most passenger-friendly fares and fees, when it comes to changes. It doesn’t charge any change fees and its flexible fares are often priced reasonably, though not always.

• Fuel surcharges: Fortunately, these fees must be included in the price of your ticket. But if you see an airline with high fuel surcharges in time of lower oil prices, you may want to seek one that doesn’t.

• Resort fees: Don’t stay at a hotel with resort fees. It’s the only way to send a message that you don’t tolerate these misrepresentations. If you see a mandatory resort fee when you’re making a reservation, close out your session immediately and book another property.

15 thoughts on “The most unfair fees in travel

  1. and this is why when i had thyroid cancer surgery before my trip to ireland. My dr said i would have to go off meds in prep for chemo (which would start after i got back) she said she would write a note i could give to the airline for a refund– i laughed in her face.

    i was a little tired on the trip but it was survivable. I was stationed in Germany at the time. so if i was given a 1 year credit I would never have been able to use it because I was already being medically discharged to go back to California.

    fees are unfair but they are a fact of life.

  2. It’s ridiculous to say a single supplement is “unfair”. Is it “unfair” for a hotel that charges $200 for a double room to charge $200, or maybe $180 or $150, for the same room if only one person occupies it? Of course not. No one says it’s unfair for a hotel to charge per room instead of per person. So why is it unfair for a tour or cruise, when most of the cost is for rooms? Sure, some tours/cruises don’t charge single supplements; that’s a marketing decision to have couples are subsidize singles, and that’s their prerogative. But it’s not an issue of fairness.

  3. I agree with Bruce that to say a single supplement in itself is unfair is ridiculous. However I agree that in Dennis Main’s case the supplement was unfair. Because he was being asked to pay the supplement fro his wife and he would not get back his money.. This means they are paying more than two people would pay for the same cabin. This is a standard practice on cruise ships because as quoted above they say “When people like Main’s wife or Lee have a cabin to themselves, the cruise line is forfeiting revenue for other activities like restaurants or bars.” In other words if the cruise costs $3,000 for two people if one cancels they charge you a supplement so it costs $4,000 to make up for the lost bar revenue.

    Now that i think is unfair and something which hotels don’t do.

  4. Let me get this straight: they booked a cabin together but only one can go, so they not only kept the money for the non-traveling spouse but are charging him $3000 extra for occupying the cabin they have already booked? Single supplements are supposed to be for the extra cost of putting one person in a room intended for two, so since the cabin for two is already paid for, surely no single supplement applies.

    Why wasn’t the cruise line mentioned by name here? We’re planning a cruise right now and would want to definitely avoid this particular nest of water moccasins.

  5. Not related to the article.. But I am having issues on two PCs (two different ISPs) accessing articles, this one in particular. It appears a script called by the page, from “gandalf.vef.fr,” infinitely redirects and prevents the page from loading. Don’t know of that helps with a culprit. I am on my mobile device now which is OK .

  6. Right and if the room price is $200, then that is what the supplier needs to make regardless of the number of people in it. So if one person is in the room, they pay $200. If two, they pay $100 each. Simple.

  7. I too am getting gandalf.vef.fr hangs. I am running linux so the problem is not on the browser side.

  8. The source code on the elliott site makes a call for a script from that domain. It’s probably a rotating banner or ad. (Looks like Donald Leslie just posted a comment from a Linux machine with the same domain issue).

  9. The more I read it, the more I think it’s just the way it’s written. The “it would cost 3000 more” refers to the original $3000 from the OP, aka the single supplement, and not an additional $3000 on top of both their fares.

  10. Update. Our IT guy says he,”removed the script and cleared varnish cache. Might be local cache.”

  11. So glad this site is educating people on the importance of travel insurance to cover any and all prepaid expenses. This article brings up one thing I’ve never quite grasped … the “single supplement” on a tour or cruise. I understand the concept, but don’t know how it works.

    Say a cruise is priced at $1039 per person, based on double occupancy. Two of you reserve the cruise at a cost of $2078. One person gets sick. The other is going to go on the cruise. Is the single supplement then charged on the $2078? Or does the passenger expect a refund of $1039 for the sick person and then would pay a single supplement (which I understand can be 100% of half the double rate)?

    It seems a no-brainer but I keep reading complaints about single supplements and I don’t understand the details.

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