The world is huge

Don't miss any of it

Travel news, itineraries, and inspiration delivered straight to your inbox.

By proceeding, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use.


Travel Taxes: Bad, Getting Worse

Taxation without representation! To a citizen of a democracy, that’s tyranny. To a bureaucrat, that’s the best kind. Worldwide, taxing authorities have targeted tourists—not in the least because tourist taxes fall most heavily on people who don’t vote on either the taxes or the people who impose them. Worse yet, as a tourist, you can’t do much about them, except stay away from the worst offenders. Sadly, those are often places you want to visit.{{{SmarterBuddy|align=left}}}A study just released by the National Business Travel Association (NBTA) identifies the tourist tax burdens in the 50 most heavily visited U.S. cities. Burdens are based on a typical visitor day, including hotel accommodations, restaurant meals, and taxis. As far as I can tell, NBTA used fairly conservative figures for hotel stays and restaurant meals, not inflated four-star prices.

  • The total tax burden—a combination of taxes that target tourists plus sales taxes and other levies that locals pay—averages close to $30 per day. That total burden is highest in Chicago, New York, Boston, Seattle, and Minneapolis, where visitors pay around $40 to $45 a day. The total burden is lowest in Ft. Lauderdale, Ft. Myers, Portland (Oregon), Detroit, and Honolulu, where visitors pay around $20 to $25 per day.
  • The “discriminatory” tax burden—the total of taxes that specifically target visitors and not locals—averages a little over $10 per day. The discriminatory burden is highest in Portland (Oregon), Boston, Minneapolis, Indianapolis, and New York City, where visitors pay about $15 to $20 per day. The discriminatory burden is lowest in five California areas: Orange County, San Jose, Burbank, San Diego, and Ontario.

Bad as the current situation is, tax-hungry municipalities and airports keep upping the ante. Chicago, for example, just doubled the airport taxi fee from $2 to $4 and is adding a huge $8 daily fee on rental cars.

In the United States, airport and security fees are bundled into the fare you pay. But many foreign airports level departure fees—often payable only in local cash.

To me, however, the most troublesome taxes are Europe’s relatively new national visitor levies designed not only for revenue, but also to discourage air travel. The U.K.’s “air passenger duty” is the worst: Starting November, it will hit travelers leaving U.K. airports on flights to the United States with a stiff duty of £60 (about $96) in economy class and £120 in any premium class, including premium economy. Ireland imposes a less onerous tax of €10 (about $14) and Germany appears about to assess a similar levy of €26 (about $36) on air passengers.

Unfortunately, many environmentalists want to discourage air travel in general. This attitude troubles me, because considering all the uses of fossil fuels, air travel is uniquely unable to find a technically and economically feasible oil alternative for the foreseeable future. Railroads can electrify; power generation can go nuclear; and cars can operate on batteries.

The U.K. duty is actually counterproductive: If the objective is to pressure folks into avoiding air travel, it would place a higher tax on short-haul trips—where travelers have good rail alternatives—rather than long-haul trips for which there is no practical substitute. The long-haul tax on a departure from the U.K. is more than you would pay to take the Eurostar to Paris or Brussels for a no-tax return flight.

It’s anyone’s guess where this will end. However, evidence indicates that excessive tourist taxes can cause countries to lose more revenue in the form of decreased visitor expenditures than it gains through the tax. The Dutch have already recognized this problem, and Ireland is facing a lot of pressure to rescind its tax.

Where will it end? If anyone can pressure local authorities into caution on overtaxation, it’s their own convention and visitors bureaus. Although individual tourists may have limited impact, cities really worry when they start losing big conventions, and overtaxation is one reason they sometimes lose business.

The only lesson for individual travelers is to budget for taxes when they plan a visit, and avoid the few avoidable levies such as a taxi fee in Chicago: Use public transit instead.

We hand-pick everything we recommend and select items through testing and reviews. Some products are sent to us free of charge with no incentive to offer a favorable review. We offer our unbiased opinions and do not accept compensation to review products. All items are in stock and prices are accurate at the time of publication. If you buy something through our links, we may earn a commission.

Top Fares From