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The Biggest Travel Gouge and How to Avoid It

Quick quiz—what’s today’s biggest travel gouge? Airline baggage fees? Hotel “resort” fees? Full-fare coach? Foreign exchange fees on credit cards? Yes, those are all gouges. But my current nominee is inflated beverage prices in restaurants and on cruise lines. You can avoid baggage fees by flying JetBlue or Southwest—or packing light into one carry-on bag. You can avoid hotel resort fees by not staying at hotels that charge them. You can usually avoid paying full-fare coach. You can avoid foreign exchange fees by using a Capital One card. But if you eat out while you’re traveling, and enjoy a bit of wine with dinner, avoiding the beverage gouge is tough—but fortunately not impossible.

My friend Don, who is planning a trip to Montreal, suggested this column. While there, he always eats at what he believes to be the world’s best steakhouse. On a whim, I looked at the restaurant’s website, and the steak menu does, in fact, look appetizing. But then I looked at the wine list. Oy. The least expensive full bottle on the long list goes for $45 Canadian (about par with the U.S. dollar these days), most of the low-end wines go for $60 to $70, a lot of the basic choices cost $100 to $120, and quite a few bottles cost more than $1,000.

I checked one of the featured wines that I knew from here in the Northwest. I can buy it for about $12.50 retail, but it’s $60 on the wine list—almost five times the retail price and probably six or seven times the restaurant’s wholesale cost. Other wine prices appear equally inflated beyond reason. {{{SmarterBuddy|align=left}}}This restaurant isn’t alone: As far as I can tell, excessive markup is the norm, not the exception. What’s especially surprising is that the wine markup is typically higher than the markup on food. Food costs at North American restaurants average about 33 percent of the menu price, and higher than that in steakhouses. Moreover, serving food involves extensive preparation and presentation, as well as some spoilage, while serving wine requires nothing more than opening a bottle. So it’s hard to figure why a restaurant would add more markup to the wine than to the steak.

Wine isn’t the only gouge, either. Beer and soft drinks typically go for many times the prices you pay in supermarkets.

Nor are restaurants the only gougers. I hear lots of complaints these days about gouge prices for wine on cruise lines, and even charges of several dollars for a cola from a dispensing machine—the ingredients of which probably cost no more than 20 cents.

Fred Franzia, the force behind the Bronco winery and producer of Charles Shaw wines (“Two-buck Chuck” in California, “Three-buck” and “Four Buck” elsewhere) set out to establish brands of decent quality wines that could sell to consumers for $2 to $4 a bottle and restaurants could sell at $10 or so with a decent markup. Sadly, although Charles Shaw is big with consumers, I haven’t seen any of his $10 wine in restaurants.

What, then, can you do? Clearly, unless you want to forego wine entirely, your best bet is to find restaurants that let you bring your own. Sure, you have to pay a corkage fee, but that’s usually no more than $20 and often less. BYOB is especially recommended if you prefer upscale wines: A bottle of a $30 wine you like would probably cost $150 to $200 in a restaurant, far more than the cost of the wine plus even a stiff corkage fee.

Sadly, you can’t do much on a cruise line, other than drink your wine off the ship. The mass-market lines are strict about prohibiting you from taking bottles onboard, even for consumption in your cabin.

I don’t know anybody who pays $400 for a bottle of wine at dinner, let alone the $1,000-plus bottles on some wine lists. Presumably, those bottles are for folks with more money than brains. But for the rest of us, BYOB plus a corkage fee is the way to go.

Your Turn

How do you save on beverage gouges while dining out? Share your best advice by submitting a comment below!

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