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Hidden hotel, rental car, and cruise charges are piling on

SmarterTravel

We frequently hear from readers who question extra charges or add-ons to their travel bills. Sadly, extra charges are becoming the norm rather than the exception, to the extent that you often find it hard to make valid price comparisons among competitive suppliers. Extras come in three forms:

  • Taxes and user fees imposed by external agencies
  • Optional extra charges for ancillary features, amenities, and conveniences
  • Mandatory extras that suppliers exclude from advertised prices but tack on somewhere along the line

The problem of extra charges is likely to get worse, not better. A few weeks ago, [% 292360 | | I covered airlines %]; here’s a rundown of what you can expect with hotels, rental cars, and cruises.

Hotels

When you stay in a hotel or resort, you’re likely to face all three categories of extras—and the hits are going to increase, not decrease.

Taxes and user fees

In the U.S., hotels almost always exclude general state and local sales tax from the prices they post on their websites and in brochures. In addition, many local taxing jurisdictions have enacted taxes and fees strictly applicable to hotel accommodations—often also including restaurant meals—and, as with sales taxes, hotels almost never include them in posted rates. Most of you expect those taxes to be extra, however, so they don’t come as a rude shock. And since almost all hotels treat them the same way, they don’t distort price comparisons.

But you can run into trouble with foreign hotels, especially in Europe. There, local laws require that hotels include VAT (value added tax) in the posted price. Since comparatively few European countries add local taxes, you expect posted prices to be exactly what you pay. Unfortunately, some European hotels exclude the VAT from the prices they post in the U.S. Since not all hotels do this, you have to be very careful when you compare rates.

Optional extras

Traditionally, hotels have offered a long list of optional extras, separately priced. Some hotels include some of these extras in the base rate. The newer ones generally deal with new technology. Since you pay only if you use the service, you aren’t likely to be scammed (except perhaps by unexpectedly high rates):

  • High-speed Internet
  • Calls from a room phone
  • Pay-per-view TV
  • In-room safe (if you use it)
  • Parking (especially in cities)
  • Incoming faxes and packages
  • Outgoing faxes
  • Access to business center

Mandatory extras

The worst offenders are hotels that add mandatory charges either (1) for services you use but expect to be included in the posted price, or (2) for additional services whether you use them or not. Clearly, mandatory extras can seriously distort price comparisons.

Hotels should incorporate all of the following extras into the base room rate, but some hotels and resorts are currently charging extra for them. Typically, hotels do not show these charges in the rates they post on their own sites or on the big online agency sites; often, you find out about them only when you leave the hotel.

  • Resort fees
  • Fuel/energy surcharges
  • Housekeeping
  • Porterage
  • Shuttle van service to/from airport or elsewhere
  • Heating and air-conditioning (some European hotels charge)
  • Ice machines

These extras should either be included in the base rate or treated as options, to be paid for only if you use them. Some hotels, however, assess a charge whether or not you use them:

  • Health club and pool
  • Telephone service
  • In-room safe
  • Entertainment fee for in-room TV
  • Room service availability

Rental cars

Extras hit a high with rental cars—they can often total more than the base rental rate. Unlike the case of hotels, however, the big online agencies such as Expedia, Orbitz, and Travelocity all give you the option of comparing prices that include all the extras.

Taxes and user fees

In the U.S., general state and local sales taxes usually apply to rental cars. In addition, local jurisdictions are notorious for piling on a bunch of extra taxes. European countries have always added VAT—usually quite stiff—to rental car rates.

More recently, airports throughout the world have become downright avaricious with rental car fees. You can often avoid them by renting from a downtown office rather than an airport office. Although getting to the downtown office usually entails additional cost and hassle, the cost reduction may well be justified.

Optional extras

Traditionally, car rentals have offered several optional extras, separately priced. The newer ones generally deal with new technology. Since you know about them in advance, they won’t come as a nasty surprise when you return the car:

  • Prepaid fuel or refueling on the lot
  • Insurance—collision, liability, accident, personal property
  • Ski racks
  • Child/infant/booster seats
  • GPS navigation systems
  • Satellite radio

Mandatory extras

Rental companies should incorporate the following widespread extras into the base rental rate, but some companies charge separately:

  • Facility recovery fees that go to the rental company rather than the airport
  • Shuttle van service to/from airport or elsewhere
  • License or in-lieu-of-license fees
  • Highway fees or highway sticker (Europe)
  • Collision/theft insurance where mandated by local laws

Cruises

Cruise lines, too, are not immune from the problem of extras.

Taxes and user fees

As a cruise traveler, you’re on the hook for many of the same customs and immigration fees that apply to international air travelers, and some ports assess user fees. Cruise lines almost never include these charges in their posted prices, but since they apply to all cruise lines, they don’t distort price comparisons.

But don’t confuse those legitimate charges with the phony “port charges” cruise lines used to use as a way of making their prices look lower than they actually were. A few years back, cruise lines routinely split out an arbitrary portion of the total cost, labeled it “port charges,” omitted it from the highlighted price, and added it back in just before you got to the final contract. This practice was an out-and-out scam, and the cruise lines pretty much stopped doing it under pressure from the Florida Attorney General’s office. Unfortunately, some independent cruise agencies still employ this scam. My recommendation is that you immediately stop doing business with any agency that prices “port charges extra.”

Optional extras

Cruise lines have traditionally touted “inclusive” pricing as an advantage over other sorts of vacations. Other than shore excursions, cruise prices have really been inclusive.

Recently, however, some cruise lines have started to unbundle some services that used to be included. Most important among them is food service, where some lines now charge extra for access to their top dining venues. Don’t be surprised to see more such unbundling, perhaps for onboard entertainment, some snacks, some recreational facilities, and such.

Mandatory extras

Tipping has been a longstanding mandatory (or at least semi-mandatory) extra as long as I can remember. Cruise tipping has consumed many column-inches of travel writing, and at least it should come as no surprise to anyone who has ever even thought about a cruise.

More troublesome is the recent trend from some of the upscale cruise lines of adding a “fuel surcharge” to posted prices. As with airlines, fuel is a basic part of the cost of doing business for a cruise line, and charging separately is an out-and-out scam. But don’t be surprised to see more of it.

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