Why are families drowning in travel fees?

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By Christopher Elliott

After Eric Kodish finished making his reservation at the Sheraton Princess Kaiulani in Honolulu’s Waikiki Beach for the upcoming Christmas holiday, he tried to tie up one loose end: ensuring the two rooms he’d booked for his family were connected.

No problem, a hotel representative said. For an additional $50 a night per room, they’d be happy to guarantee adjoining accommodations.

“My kids are minors,” says Kodish, an accountant from Moorestown, N.J. “They can’t stay across the hall if a connecting room isn’t available.”

The price tag for staying next to his children, Tyler, 8, and Devon, 5? An additional $1,100.

Family friendly

The travel industry likes to describe itself as “family friendly,” and Sheraton is no exception. In its promotional material, it promises visitors a “fun-filled family getaway”. Like many hotel chains, offers special programs for its youngest guests, including kids-eat-free packages at its restaurants.

But some customers and family travel experts claim the travel industry preys on families as much as it pampers them, broadsiding these helpless customers with junk fees and surcharges.

Trey Sarten is a spokesman for Sheraton’s parent company, Starwood Hotels & Resorts. Sheraton says select properties charge for guaranteed connecting rooms during high season. “The hotel is unable to guarantee connecting rooms due to limited inventory,” he explained.

Kodish could have avoided the fee if he’d booked a “Love Your Family” package, which includes guaranteed connecting rooms. But he paid for the room using his points, the result of 13 years of loyalty to Starwood.

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Mandatory resort charge

Kodish says his allegiance to the hotel is all the more reason the adjoining room fee should have been waived. He believes Sheraton is just charging the fee because it can. He notes the hotel already charges a mandatory $31 “resort charge” per room, per day, for high-speed Internet access, parking and unlimited local and toll-free calls. “I find it obnoxious that they want to surcharge me to make sure I can have a nice trip with my family,” he says.

Families don’t just feel victimized on the ground. In the air, the advent of “unbundling” — stripping amenities away from a ticket to make it look cheaper — has hit families hard.

American Airlines surprised Kelly Badger when they told her that they had changed the seat assignments for her family’s upcoming flight from Dallas to Cancun, Mexico, which she had booked and confirmed eight months ago But when she saw the new reservation, she was mortified. The airline had her sitting several rows away from her 2-year-old son, Bodhi.

Preferred seat

Badger is an office manager in Dallas. She called the airline and they told her she could purchase two seats together — for an extra $38 apiece.

American, like a majority of U.S. legacy carriers, sets aside the most desirable seats in economy class and charges a separate fee for a confirmed reservation. To fly next to her son, Badger would occupy what American refers to as a “Preferred Seat.” Badger escalated her case to a supervisor, who was unsympathetic.

“She says there’s no policy about separating a toddler from his parents, and it happens all the time,” she says. “She saw zero problem with it.”

It’s difficult to know exactly how severely these new surcharges have affected families because neither airlines nor hotels break out their fees based on who pays them. But it is no exaggeration to say that families feel as if they’re the preferred targets.

Families are the path of least resistance

Kyle McCarthy is the editor of the Family Travel Forum, an Internet community for frequent travelers. He says the overall industry, and particularly, airlines, “are a horror show” of fees for families. The reason is simple: Families are the path of least resistance, and will quickly shell out extra fees because they feel as if they have no choice.

But they aren’t entirely helpless. The very thing used to force compliance — their kids — can be leveraged against a company, too. “Mentioning that my son has motion sickness goes a long way toward clearing a whole row of seats for my family on a plane,” she laughs.

Jen Wells, an engineer at a computer company in Columbia, S.C., refuses to fly on a legacy airline to avoid the fees that target family travelers like her. She goes out of her way to fly on JetBlue, which includes the price of a checked bag and offers ample legroom on its flights.

Unbundled airline

“I’m convinced my experience of flying with a baby would be completely different if I’d chosen an unbundled airline,” she says. “The base price of our ticket was technically more expensive, but I’m betting if we had added up all the fees we would’ve had to pay, the difference would disappear, or even go in our favor.” (Related: The most ridiculous travel fees.)

There may be a happy ending for the Kodish and Badger families.

One of the Sheraton properties in Hawaii that the Kodishes planned to stay at has already agreed to waive its adjoining room fee, and Starwood says it’s reviewing the connecting room fee, although the damage is already done. Kodish says he’s quitting Starwood’s loyalty program as a result of the fee dispute. (Here’s everything that you need to know about money and travel.)

After I contacted American on the Badgers’ behalf, it quickly offered the whole family seats together at no extra charge.

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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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