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Travel fees are out of control. Here's what to do about them

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 12/29/2019 Christopher Elliott, Special to USA TODAY
Woman with passport and boarding pass in airport. © Yiu Yu Hoi/Digital Vision/Getty Images Woman with passport and boarding pass in airport.

Travel surcharges are so annoying. And they're just getting worse. 

At least that's the assessment of Jayne Hanlin, a retired elementary school teacher from St. Louis. Late last summer, the hotel chain informed her that it would start applying a new $20 "destination fee" to each night of her stay. The mandatory fee covers "premium" Wi-Fi, phone calls, and two bottles of water in her room – items that should be included.

"This is ridiculous," says Hanlin.

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Ridiculous as they may seem, the latest travel surcharges look like they're here to stay. Whether it's a fee to print your boarding pass at the airport or a room service surcharge for cruise passengers, the travel industry loves to help itself to more of your money. Even lawsuits by two state attorney generals and the threat of Congressional action haven't been able to slow the rise of resort fees, which are arguably the worst fees in the industry.

But you can do something about the latest travel surcharges. The strategies range from complaining to the right person to a boycott of a company with consumer-unfriendly travel surcharges. Ultimately, Congress may have to step in to fix this.

How to complain about your travel surcharge

You can get rid of most travel surcharges with the right approach. 

Consider what happened to Mark Jackson when he recently checked into an upscale chain hotel in Southern California. He'd booked the hotel online using his points, but when he arrived he noticed an undisclosed travel surcharge: a $30 per night resort fee.

Fortunately, Jackson works for a travel deal site and knew what to do. He took screenshots of the booking process, which showed that the hotel's resort fee wasn't disclosed before he booked. "The hotel removed the fee at checkout," he says.

Negotiating away junk fees takes patience, persistence and politeness. But if that fails, there's always the credit card disputes. I've heard from many readers who simply disputed the charges to their MasterCard or Visa. You have the right to do that under federal law, and if it's a questionable fee, you'll probably get a refund.

Lauren Wolfe, who started the site KillResortFees.com, says sending a letter to your state attorney general can help, too. "I've seen fees be refunded after someone filed a consumer complaint with their attorney general," she says. You can find a consumer complaint form online at your state attorney general website.

How to get rid of travel surcharges forever

Robert Smith is unhappy with automatic tipping and destination fees charged by hotels and restaurants. Hotels add these to your bill "for your convenience" and hope you won't notice. They can inflate your bill by up to 20% – more if you add a tip on top of it by accident.

"This whole concept of charging extra for activities that are 100% discretionary represents yet another example of corporate greed and total lack of interest in customer satisfaction," says Smith, a program manager who currently lives in San José, Costa Rica.

So Smith recently told Marriott that he wouldn't do business with the hotel chain anymore, as long as it charges junk fees

"It won't change anything," he predicts. 

Or will it? In fact, experts say that a sustained boycott is the most effective tool for change. If enough travelers refuse to pay a fee, it will disappear. And if the company doesn't listen, then it may disappear.

What if a boycott doesn't work?

Problem is, the travel industry isn't as competitive as it looks. We're down to just a few airlines, car rental companies and hotel chains. So when one company imposes a fee and the rest follow, there's no escaping it.

Thoughtful regulation might solve the problem in the long run. And there's plenty of thoughtful legislation out there. For example, the Fair Fees Act would prohibit airlines from imposing fees that are "unreasonable or disproportional" to the costs they incur. Similar laws that would restrict resort fees are also under consideration.

But maybe governments should worry more about creating an environment where competition thrives, instead of micromanaging fees. That's because travel companies are smarter and more adaptable than Congress. Today's resort fee is tomorrow's destination fee.

It's up to us to remove the incentive to charge these unwanted travel surcharges. Maybe we can start by refusing to patronize a business that imposes these unethical charges on its customers.

These are the worst travel surcharges

Hotel resort fees. Hotel resort fees are mandatory daily fees of between $20 and $30 charged separately from the advertised price. These junk fees, which supposedly cover amenities that used to be included in the hotel rate, are widely considered the worst travel surcharges in the travel industry. How it should be: If they're mandatory, the fees should be part of the room rate.

Airline fees. These range from a fee to print your boarding pass to baggage surcharges. Airlines refer to the income from these fees as "ancillary" revenue. How it should be: Each airline ticket should include a minimum of one checked bag and a confirmed seat. And yeah, no one should charge you for printing your boarding pass. Ever.

Cruise fees. The latest are fees for room service delivery. But the worst are "optional" tips automatically added to your folio. If you don't notice them before you disembark, you have to pay. How it should be: Adding an optional tip to your bill is called a negative option opt-out, and it's unethical. You should have to opt into the tips – not out.     

Related video: The reason why most airplane seats are blue (Provided by Buzz60)

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