Who has the worst fees in the travel industry? Here’s the surprise answer

Will the industry with the worst fees please stand up and take a bow?

You’re looking at the airlines, over in the corner, aren’t you? Granted, they come off as a little shady and they’re constantly making news for some insane new surcharge, like paying extra for confirmed seat assignments or to carry a bag on the plane.

I polled readers of this column – I’ll get to the answers in a moment – but let me offer a clue: It’s not the airlines. They’re bad, but they’re apparently not the worst. They’re not even number two.

So who wins, then?

First, let me put the answer in a little context. The travel industry has a well-earned reputation for broadsiding its customers with fees (that was a hint, in case you were wondering) but it is by no means unique. I didn’t ask readers about wireless carriers or credit card companies, for example, which are legendary when it comes to extras.

Fees are everywhere. When I order flowers for my grandmother and ask for the $50 bouquet, I end up getting charged more than $70 because there are taxes, delivery fees and other miscellaneous charges.

But let’s stick to travel. Here, in reverse order, are the travel companies who have mastered the art of fees:

Travel agents. Asked where they would most expect to get a surprise fee, surcharge or bill from when they travel, just one percent of respondents pointed the finger at travel advisers. It’s important to distinguish between bricks-and-mortar travel agents, which charge booking fees, and online agents, which have done away with a lot of fees for competitive reasons.

But make no mistake: Second-tier tier online travel agencies and the so-called “mom and pop” shops can hit you with fees just when you least expect it. I heard from one reader in Alaska who was charged an outrageous $100 booking fee for an airline ticket. The agent didn’t bother responding to my inquiry. In one extreme example a few years ago, an agent doubled the price of a traveler’s train tickets, calling it a commission.

Cruise lines. Only four percent of respondents tagged cruise ships as the worst surcharge offenders. Again, that may have more to do with the fact that a significant number of Americans haven’t cruised, and that cruise lines have always advertised their products as “all-inclusive” (even if they obviously aren’t). If more people cruised, maybe the percentage would be higher. That might not be a good thing, come to think of it.

Cruise fees are getting out of control. The moment you board a ship, you’re offered services for a fee, like drinks, photos, spa treatments and specialty restaurants. You can say “no” of course, but what kind of vacation would that be? The point is, a cruise is not all-inclusive. It’s semi-inclusive, at best. And what you don’t spend on optional extras you’ll dole out in tips to the underpaid staff.

Airlines. Sigh. A little less than a quarter of travelers picked air carriers. With good reason: So-called “ancillary” fees account for an every-increasing percentage of airline revenues. That’s surcharges for making a ticket change, getting a confirmed seat reservation and checking your first bag. Airlines sure do love their fees.

A recent poll by the Consumer Travel Alliance found that these extra fees can double the price of an airline ticket. I hear from disenchanted passengers every day who feel as if they’ve been duped into paying more for their ticket – in some cases a whole lot more. Still, the airline industry isn’t the worst offender.

Hotels. Just over one-quarter of respondents said the lodging industry was the top source of fees. That’s on the low end of what I would have guessed, given the many surcharges, both new and old, that resorts heap on their customers. You name it, chances are there’s a fee for it, whether it’s the safe in your room or the towel you use at the pool. The worst surcharges aren’t disclosed and force you to pay them in addition to your room rate, whether you use the service or not, like the ubiquitous “resort fee.”

Often, it’s not the size of the fee but the sentiment it communicates. One reader complained about a 15 percent service charge for her mini-bar, where the items were already market up several hundred percent. Another expressed her disappointment when she was billed $1 for in-room coffee at a resort that charged nearly $300 a night. The surcharges cheapened the experience and made their hosts look like greedy innkeepers.

Rental cars. Yes, rental cars won the poll. By a landslide. More than 2 out of 5 respondents – 44 percent – thought of a car rental company first when they thought of fees. That surprised me, and it surprised a few other people in the car rental industry to whom I showed the results. But interestingly, they didn’t offer any rebuttal. They know that car rental customers are hit from all sides. Not just the silly fees and options they apply to their vehicles, but also the taxes and fees imposed by state and local governments. You’re lucky to pay twice the base rate that you’re quoted when all is said and done.

Car rental companies also slam you with fees before and after you rent. It isn’t just the laundry list of taxes and surcharges (tire disposal fees, license recovery fees) but the ones you face afterwards, for everything from refueling your car, to surprise insurance charges (but look, you initialed the acceptance for that $14-a-day collision-damage waiver option!) to, in extreme cases, big bills for little dings and dents that were already there when you picked up the car.

So what does all of this mean? Maybe that our collective anger about fees is misplaced, or perhaps distorted by my esteemed colleagues who think travel begins and ends at the airport. In fact, while airlines are high on fees, travelers know that hotels and rental cars are worse.

It’s also helpful for those of us who want to budget our next vacation. While we may think we’re likely to get hammered with fees on a plane, the truth is, we can also expect to pay extra at our hotel and for our rental car.

In other words, there is no escape.

(Photo: Lucas/Flickr Creative Commons)

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