Why are families drowning in travel fees?

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.

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“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.

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” and, 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, a spokesman for Sheraton’s parent company, Starwood Hotels & Resorts, says select Sheraton 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.

His allegiance to the hotel is all the more reason the adjoining room fee should have been waived, Kodish says. 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.

Kelly Badger was surprised when American Airlines told her the seat assignments for her family’s upcoming flight from Dallas to Cancun, Mexico, which she’d booked and confirmed eight months ago, had been changed. 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.

“I called the airline and was told I could purchase two seats together — for an extra $38 apiece,” says Badger, an office manager in Dallas.

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 said there’s no policy about a toddler being separated 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 families have been affected by these new surcharges, 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.

Kyle McCarthy, editor of the Family Travel Forum, an Internet community for frequent travelers, 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.

“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.”

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.

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

Does the travel industry prey on families?

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43 thoughts on “Why are families drowning in travel fees?

  1. “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.”

    sympathy level reading -zero. me, my sister, my mom and dad ALL SHARED ONE ROOM at EVERY family vacation we ever went on.

    but on a more positive note- this is the best line EVER–

    ““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.”

    1. What your family did on their vacations is irrelevant to this discussion. Mr. Kodish wants two rooms for his family and is willing to pay for them. The point that is being made is that the hotel is charging him and additional $50 per night PER ROOM for the privilege of having adjoining rooms. He believes that the hotel takes unfair advantage of families.

  2. I don’t think the hotel should charge extra for adjoining rooms. They have to give them two rooms anyway, just choose adjoining ones. Charging a fee for it is absurd.
    As for sitting together on a plane, I’ve never really had a problem getting seats together. I check the available seating BEFORE I make the booking. If I can’t get the seats, I choose another flight.

    1. Bill__A, you’re missing a key point. Sometimes you reserve seats together (without paying the reserved seat fee) and the airline just changes the seat assignments on its own. That’s what happened to the person in Chris’s column. It doesn’t happen all the time, but it does happen.

      1. Well, the airlines should quit doing that. If they have a linked reservation, then it should stay one. I’m sure there are a lot of things at play here.

  3. The separation from toddlers issue on flights is really bogus, but Chris is right that it is a scare tactic that airline use to try to bilk fees from consumers.

    I once showed up for a flight with my son (when he was 3) and they had us in separated seats. When I pointed this out to the gate agent, she told me it wouldn’t be a problem, he would be fine. I calmly told her that this is fine, then when he melts down on the airplane because his dad wasn’t sitting next to him, I hoped that the kindness of the strangers sitting next to him would appease him, because I would be unable to help from 8 rows away. Lo and behold, when this was pointed out to her, within two minutes my seat assignment was changed.

    I wouldn’t recommend anybody pay those fees for seat assignments to “guarantee” adjoining seats when traveling with very young children. Any remotely normal adult who recognizes that the possibility of a 2-hour flight next to a screaming, untended child could be a nightmare will usually offer to switch, and if not, the poor flight attendants will do everything in their power to fix it because they realize the potential of the problem. Don’t freak out about being separated… simply stay calm and point out that you cannot be held responsible for controlling your child anymore when you are not permitted to sit next to him or her. Common sense will prevail, and if for some insane reason it doesn’t, the airline will have a plane full of very angry customers when they land.

    1. You outlined the response I was thinking of when reading the article. Carriers can get away with the tactic because most parents will pay. Only if enough stand up and give this type of response will carriers act differently. Allow the carriers to explain to its passengers why a young child is sitting next to them, slobbering over them, and forcing them to take on the responsibilities of the parent sitting several rows away. And if the carrier won’t respond and does separate parents and kids, perhaps the parents can simply enjoy the peaceful flight (see http://www.westjet.com/kargokids).

    2. Common sense and reality don’t always collide. If you watched my video of the toddler having a melt down, airline’s are often apathetic.

      They’ll ignore the problem and go about their business. Sure, you’re free to highlight the potential problems created by leaving a toddler unattended. I encourage parents to avoid the fees by pointing out the countless scenarios where the child creates havoc.

      Will the airlines budge and give in to one’s plight? From my story of the unruly toddler sitting beside her parents, who knows.

      U.S. Airways et al. most airlines “Rather Ignore Problems” than get involved. Let the child behavior be of concern to other passengers and not the airline or staff.

    3. On one hand, Doug is totally right. On the other hand, as a parent, I’d rather fly an airline like Virgin America or JetBlue that will accomodate us (actually, go out of their way to accommodate us in teh case of Virgin) without our having to do last minute scrambling at the airport.

  4. I think the idea of paying $50 extra per night, per room for adjoining rooms is especially obnoxious. What if you tell them that you only want one room to adjoin, not the other? 🙂

  5. Not directed at Chris, but the media can troll the blogosphere and find anecdotes substantiating just about any and all claims. I call “blown out of proportion” here. If the issue were widespread, there’d be lawsuits and public outcry in massive proportion. Not just a few inconvenienced travelers. Consider the coverage for Airline baggage fees.

    U.S. Airways (and I’m sure most airlines), by their own admissions, avoid bad press from picking on families. I can be told to pipe down, but heaven forbid, a family is told to calm a child.

    Moral, these fees exist, but with a little insistence are probably waived in all but the unlikeliest of circumstances. Neither airlines nor hotels want regular coverage for “targeting families”.

    Consumers are always free to shop elsewhere if services don’t meet expectations. The almighty dollar spends just as well with competitors offering a better value.

  6. Outside of a policy being right/wrong (free market will / should fix that if everyone backed their words with action, er, inaction perhaps) – this is a points customer. Any long time traveler (and having enough points for this many rooms for that long a time means he is/was) certainly knows a points customer is going to be a lower class than a cash customer (though probably still above a booked through a travel website customer).

    Mostly I’m confused by this. It appears he wasn’t shocked with a bill at checkout which would be something to write Chris about for sure; but he dutifully asked about the fee up front and was told the truth. But he didn’t like the truth but did it anyway and then wanted a refund? If that is the case I am extremely disappointed.

  7. Not address the rights or wrong, just policies. Most hotels never guarantee your room. Unlike a cruise, where you can get a cabin assigned, most hotels do not do this. One resort on Maui, for a fee, will let you lock in an actual room number. So charging for this service isn’t unusual in the industry.

    1. That depends. Some hotel chains do guarantee a certain type of room. For example, most hotel chains I’ve been to have no problem guaranteeing a handicapped accessible room with certain features (should the chain offer those features).

      Reserving two rooms and asking for a guarantee of connecting rooms doesn’t seem so far fetched.

    2. In general, bodega3 is right. On the other hand, I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve gotten to a hotel this happened:

      Desk clerk: “YOUR room isn’t ready yet.”
      Me: “Are there any rooms ready?”
      Desk clerk: “Yes, but not yours.”
      Me: “Can’t I have one of the other rooms.”
      Desk clerk: “Yes.”
      Me: “Great, so my room is ready.”

      For some reason, when the room isn’t ready on time, you DO have a specific room assigned (until you complain).

  8. As a side note, as a non family traveler I am regularly put out due to families knowing there are fees to be together but not paying them and playing the sad card. Countless times I selected my seat after researching the plan and whether I’m going to work or veg out, and then I’m asked very pubically to give up what I want for them. If I were a man perhaps I wouldn’t be approached as often, not sure on that. And if you say no I don’t want your seat, wow, look out. I apparently don’t need my seat because I should be using my broom to fly to my destination.

    Travel may be looking to make a buck (or five) off of families with extras here and there but families are often discriminating against solo travel people and don’t seem to be willing to pony up anything in return.

    And before I’m threatened with the ‘Sally won’t behave’, it’s empty since there are good odds are she won’t anyway since her parents vacation started the minute they got on the plane.

      1. hmmmmmmmm, doesn’t seem like you are that sorry? There is a frequent use program that I would explain but Chris’ site would tell me how bad it is.

        1. Good grief! That was meant as a joke, not an insult! I don’t see how it was taken to be rude, which is why I put a smiley face, but I really did not mean it that way. My apologies!

    1. Remember, there’s always two seats involved in these situations. There’s the seat you’re in, next to the unruly toddler; but there’s also the seat next to the parent. THAT person could also be asked to switch. My guess is that the seat next to you was the “better” seat, hence the desire to switch to that one.

    2. I don’t see how asking you to move from one aisle seat to another is discriminating against you. Maybe you need to pay more to guarantee that you have a specific seat.

      1. uh huh, maybe you don’t realize that some seats have misaligned windows, or that some seats don’t fully recline, or that the arm rest is not adjustable, or the myriad differences between planes that do make seat selection a matter of research and knowledge. Or simply that that my not having a kid with me is not making me a 2nd class person and if they wanted to be together and knew they had to pay to make that a guarantee then they took their chances and lost. I’m not a gambler with my seat selection.

        1. I do realize all of those things. I don’t see how it’s discrimination to deny you those things. Perhaps more to the point, if you want to ensure that you have a particular seat, why don’t you pay more to guarantee that seat. The requirement of paying a fee to guarantee a particular seat on legacy carriers doesn’t just apply to families.

          You are making the exact same complaint as parents are making, and at the same time criticizing parents for making that complaint.

          1. nope. my seat cannot be guaranteed (yet). they can book together and choose not to. no caps means i’m not yellling at you. be nice.

          2. I’m not yelling. Yelling is when everything is in caps. I’m capitalizing for emphasis, since you can’t do italics or underlying in a comment thread. And, yes, you can pay more to guarantee your seat. You can check with your airline when you reserve, or you can rely on what Chris wrote in this article:

            “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.”

            Feel free to pay a separate fee to confirm your seats. Just like a family has to in order to guarantee certain seats.

          3. And I’ll continue to be free (not just feel it) to decline the request to move my seat and not be at the mercy of families that are preying on others so they can save money.

          4. Some other poster showed us how to italicize, bold and underline in these comments. Use html code. You use a character at the beginning of the word or phrase. When you want it to stop, again use the .

            Example: bold

          5. Cool, thanks. i didn’t know you could use HTML in disqus.

            omgstfualready, I fixed the capitals in my earlier post for your reading comfort. I wouldn’t want to prey on you.

  9. Leave the two year old in the seat several rows away from his mom and see how fast the flight attendants change that arrangement. Really, really stupid airline policies keep me close to home more times than not. And, I’ve discovered some really nice places to take my family that I wouldn’t have explored otherwise.

    1. uh, they will do exactly the same as if the parent (mother or father) was sitting there pretending their adorable creature is not bothering anyone. Then the complaint comes in and the airline gives a $100 voucher.

  10. My sympathy factor for families traveling together is at an all-time low. I needed connecting rooms on a trip with my elderly parent. She needs some assistance and I also need to check on her a couple times during the night. And I had to pay for connecting rooms. Did not like it but paid up. (Traveling with spouse who does not like to share with elderly parent.) Families with children can simply do the same. My mom’s medical condition makes connecting rooms a must, but no one seems to see that. Traveling with children does not make you entitled to things the rest of us pay for. Our nation has become obsessed with catering to children and I am tired of it.
    I am not responsible for your children and you do not get a pass on things that I pay for when traveling with my spouse, my elderly parent or anyone else.

    Plan in advance, pay for the seats/rooms you want just like the rest of us do.

    1. I’m confused. Your experience with your ill mother should give you MORE sympathy. The idea is that FAMILIES should be able to have adjoining rooms. Is your mom not part of your family?

      1. Travel with an adult needing a bit of assistance and you will see that there is little sympathy for us. I simply do not argue, I pay the fee and deal with it. We are treated differently than people with small children–which is what many mean by families. My point is that many of us have to pay for convenience and being part of a family does not excuse us from that. Period. No sympathy here.

  11. I have the same reaction to requiring adjoining rooms as I do for having an entire row for the family on a plane: Why? Mom and one kid in a room of the hotel (or plane row), Dad and the other kid in the other room/row. Minor children shouldn’t be alone in a hotel room anyway, so adjoining rooms might be ideal but they certainly aren’t necessary anymore than it’s a necessity to have all children and parents sit together on a plane. Inconvenience does not equal necessity.

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