8 ways fees can bust your travel budget

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Think you’ve just planned the perfect budget vacation? Make sure you’ve calculated all the costs before you hit book. Whether it’s for amenities that were once free or for little luxuries, travel fees can add up.

From planes, trains and automobiles to hotels, there are dozens of hidden, not-so-hidden and unexpected fees being charged to travelers that can really put a dent in your travel budget. U.S. hotels charged an estimated $2.25 billion in total fees and surcharges in 2014, according to New York University’s Tisch Center for Hospitality, Tourism and Sports Management.

Don’t get caught off guard. Research possible fees before your trip, ask questions and carefully review your bills at the hotel and car rental counter before you sign and leave. It’s difficult to dispute charges once you’ve hastily signed for them and paid.

Here are eight types of fees to remember and tips on how to avoid letting these pesky costs turn your budget vacation into an exorbitant excursion.

Booking fees

Forget booking by phone if you want to avoid flight fees. (Image: Markus P, 1977 Siemens Telephone, Germany via Flickr CC BY 2.0)

With the increasing popularity of booking travel online, many airlines and travel websites now charge booking fees for folks who prefer to book travel over the phone. Even if you opt to book online, beware of any online booking fees. That small $5 fee adds up if you’re booking travel for multiple people. Besides, you could use that $5 to buy a beverage during your travels.

Avoid booking fees by shopping around and comparing prices. Whether you book from a third party or direct from the airline, hotel or car rental company, be sure to read all the fine print.

Baggage fees

Don’t get laden down with luggage fees. (Image: THOR, Vintage Luggage Parmiters Antiques Southsea via Flickr CC BY 2.0)

In an exceedingly long list of amenities that are no longer complimentary, checked bags, and even carry-on bags on Allegiant, Frontier and Spirit airlines, were added to the litany of little luxuries like meals, snacks, pillows, blankets and headsets once afforded to travelers. In addition to charging for checked luggage, airlines also assess charges for overweight baggage and excess baggage.

Avoid baggage fees by packing less, booking the right airline or fare class and planning ahead.

  • Checked baggage fees: Avoid checked baggage fees altogether by learning to travel with one carry-on bag (yes, it is possible). With the right suitcase, tools, tips like our How to Travel with One Carry-on and planning, you can pack it all in and not fret about fees or finding space in the overhead bin. Or book an airline or fare class that suits your needs. JetBlue may have abandoned free bags on its lowest fare flights, but it’s generally cheaper to book a Blue Plus ticket, which includes a free bag, than to pay for a last minute bag check. And most airlines will charge you less if you pay in advance for checking your luggage. If you fly often with luggage on the same airline, consider a credit card with that airline (free bag check is a common perk). Finally, if you are really going to be saddled with baggage (think ski or golf vacation), compare pricing with services like Luggage Forward, which provides door-to-door shipping for all your gear.
  • Overweight baggage fees: To avoid overweight baggage fees, weigh your bag at home before heading to the airport. Lighten the load by removing that extra pair of shoes or non-essential extra outfit. Leave the toiletries at home too. You can use the complimentary hotel amenities or stock up at the store at your destination. If you’re traveling back from your dream vacation and can’t bear the thought of not shopping until you drop, inquire if your purchases can be mailed directly from the shops or hotel; it might be free or cheaper than what the airline will charge for an extra bag. Consider upgrading your seat to business or first class on international flights by paying or using reward points to do so. You’ll not only get more legroom, but you’ll likely get a larger bag allowance too. If you’re traveling with friends, see if they can help lighten your load. If all else fails, redistribute items between your checked and carry-on bags.

Hotel fees

Beware the bevy of hotel fees at your next hotel stay. (Image: TheDeliciousLife, Gummy Bears in the Mini Bar via Flickr CC BY 2.0)

Most travelers are familiar with basic hotel fees like pay-per-view movies, room service, telephone calls, spa services and hotel taxes, but there are a bunch of other fees you might not know about such as resort fee, bed type guarantee, early check-in/late check-out, luggage storage, minibar restocking fee, water, safe, towels, newspaper, internet, fitness center, parking, package receipt and energy fees.

Here’s how to avoid some of the most common hotel fees:

  • Resort fee: Many hotels charge a “hotel resort fee” either at the time of booking or at checkout. This fee is essentially a higher nightly rate hidden in the fine print, so even if you prepaid for your reservation, you might still find an extra 10 percent or more surcharge per night at checkout. Avoid resort fees by speaking to the hotel before booking to see if the hotel charges this fee. If they do, you can try to negotiate to have it removed, particularly if you are staying for an extended period of time, it’s low season or it’s a last-minute booking.
  • Airport shuttle: Gone are the days when travelers could assume the hotel shuttle is free. Ask at the time of booking to avoid any surprises.
  • Bed type guarantee: Prefer to have a king or queen size bed? At some hotels, locking this preference in may cost you. Avoid this fee by asking at the time of booking if the hotel charges to place a bed preference in the reservation. You can also avoid the fee by booking at hotels that only offer king and queen size beds as options.
  • Early check-in/late check-out: While many hotels will gladly accommodate travelers who wish to arrive early or leave later, an increasing number are charging for this. Ask to speak to a manager to see if the fee can be waived or store your bags with the bellhop or concierge and begin to enjoy the resort’s amenities like afternoon tea or a spa treatment.
  • Bellhop/housekeeper gratuities: This “service charge” is often levied per day or per stay. There isn’t a way to avoid this, but it’s important to factor it into your travel budget.
  • Luggage storage: Need a safe place to stash your bags before or after checkout? While many hotels still offer luggage storage for free (though tipping is recommended), some do not. Ask before you hand over your luggage. If your hotel charges a fee, see if your destination offers an in-city airport check-in option that allows you to not only check yourself in for a flight but your baggage as well.
  • Minibar restocking fee: Given that it’s rare to find a hotel that offers free minibar snacks, most travelers are accustomed to paying for food and drinks from the minibar. However, an increasing number of hotels are also adding a minibar-restocking fee to the price of a canned soda or snack. Some tech-savvy hotels have extended the minibar to other parts of the room, automatically charging for items, which are detected as removed from the minibar via sensors. If the snack remains in your hands for too long, you’ve just bought it. Best advice: don’t touch the minibar at all.
  • Water: It’s increasingly commonplace to see water bottles placed in hotel rooms, particularly in destinations where the water isn’t potable. Some hotels stock bottled water on the counter and in the fridge, designating one type as free and the other for a fee. If there is a fee, consider stocking up on bottled water at a local supermarket or bringing your own water bottle from home and filling it with a complimentary glass of water from a hotel restaurant.
  • Safe: Many hotels offer an in-room safe, a convenient place to securely stash your items, but some hotels charge guests who opt to use the safe and others charge just because it is in the room (the justification is that the fee covers both the cost of the safe and insurance for its contents). Avoid this fee by double checking with hotel staff to confirm if the safe is free. If it’s not free, ask if items can be stored in the hotel’s main safe for free.
  • Towels: Most hotels offer complimentary towels in-room (hostels and lower end hotels around the world often rent towels and bed linens), but, if in doubt, ask. The more common towel charge is from resorts that often charge for beach and pool towels and even fitness center towels. Avoid this fee by staying at resorts that offer free towels, packing your own towel or using the room towels at the beach and pool. Just be sure that if you have to ask for extra towels that there isn’t an extra charge for that too.
  • Newspaper: An increasing number of hotels have moved away from placing a complimentary newspaper at your door each morning, but some still do (even if you don’t request it) for a fee. Avoid this fee by asking upon check-in if the newspapers offered are free. If they aren’t, politely opt out of newspaper delivery.
  • Internet: Some hotels have staggering surcharges for in-room Internet and Wi-Fi. Some charge by the room per day while others charge by the device. Avoid Internet fees by asking if your room rate or loyalty membership includes free Internet. If not, use the free Internet offered in public areas (like the lobby) or head to a nearby coffee shop that offers free Wi-Fi.
  • Fitness center: Many properties offer the use of the fitness center for free, but sometimes this isn’t the case. Avoid fitness center fees by calling the hotel and asking before you complete your reservation if the gym is included. If not, you can find other ways to exercises outdoors – take a city walking tour or go swimming in the ocean.
  • Groundskeeping fee: If your resort is in a bucolic setting, you might see this charge on your bill. There isn’t a way to avoid this, but it’s important to factor it into your travel budget.
  • Parking: Some hotels, particularly in large cities, charge for parking and valeting the car. Avoid parking fees by skipping the car rental (opt for public transport or a taxi instead), parking near the hotel or staying out in the suburbs where parking may be free.
  • Package receipt: Need to mail something to the hotel before your stay? Ensure the hotel doesn’t charge you a fee for holding on to your packages prior to your arrival.
  • Energy charge: Introduced in 2000, the energy charge was established to help hotels cover rising utility costs, but some hotels take advantage by charging a hefty amount. Try to negotiate the rate, particularly if you are staying for several nights or it’s low season. If the hotel manager won’t budge, ask for a better room rate.

Car rental fees

rearview mirror
Don’t get hit with excess car rental fees. (Image: jeronimo sanz, Rearview Mirror via Flickr CC BY 2.0)

Ever glance at a car rental receipt? It’s like a short novel. Most travelers, eager to start their vacations, grab the car rental keys and toss the receipt in the glove box. But that lengthy receipt can be riddled with potential fees added on like rental insurance, age, extra driver, alternate drop-off location, late drop off, fuel, GPS, key replacement and even fees to help fund city improvement projects.

Here’s how to avoid some of the most common car rental fees:

  • Rental Insurance: Most drivers are already insured via their own car insurance or credit card that is used to book the rental. Check your policy before your trip and, if you’re covered, waive the car rental insurance. (To be safe, bring proof on insurance as occasionally you will be asked to show it.)
  • Age: In the past, drivers under 25 years old were at a loss for finding a car rental company willing to rent them a car. Nowadays, many rental car companies are willing to – for a fee. If you’re traveling in a mixed age group, avoid the fee by leaving the rental and the driving to folks older than 25.
  • Extra driver: Car rental agencies may ask you to report the names of folks driving the car. Stick to one driver, or, if you need to share driving responsibilities, do so with your travel companions who are older than 25. Some rental companies waive the extra driver fee for spouses, so be sure to ask about that if you are traveling with your SO.
  • Alternate drop-off location: If you’re planning to drive one way, be ready to pay. To avoid this fee, pickup and drop-off the car at the same location. If you must travel one-way, consider taking the bus, train, or even a plane instead – it may be cheaper than the car rental and alternate drop-off location fee combined.
  • Late drop-off: Adhere to the contracted agreed upon time to return the car. Failure to return the car on time could result in additional fees.
  • Fuel: Most car renters are aware that they’ll be charged if they don’t bring the car back with a full tank of gas, but some might not be aware just how much they could be charged. Save this expense by filling up the tank just prior to returning the car, but avoid fueling up just off the highway or near the rental car agency as gas prices in these locations tend to be higher.
  • GPS: Some rental car agencies charge to use the GPS systems equipped in their cars. Just because the device is in the car doesn’t mean it is free. Ask the rental agency if it charges a fee for using the GPS. If they do, skip it. Use free apps like Google Maps and Waze on your smartphone to help you plot and direct your journey. Just make sure you have a travel data plan on your phone if you’re traveling abroad.
  • Electronic toll collection devices: Some rental car agencies charge renters for the privilege of using electronic toll collection devices. Avoid this fee by not using the device. While it might be nice to cruise past longer lines at toll booths, save money by paying for tolls in cash, even if it means waiting a bit longer in traffic.
  • Key replacement: Losing car keys is a hassle. Losing rental car keys is even more so, as there is a hefty fine for doing so. If the car rental agency doesn’t do so already, put the car keys on a big, bulky keychain – this way, they will be easier to spot or, if they fall, will grab your attention. Only take the keys with you when you’re using the car. If you’re spending the day without using the car, keep them safe and secure in your hotel room.
  • City improvement fee: Many large cities have funded major projects partly by adding small fees to car rental bills that help offset the costs of new convention centers, stadiums and more. Avoid paying this by renting your car from an agency that is not in or adjacent to the airport, if possible. Take public transportation or a taxi to the car rental agency in town. In addition to potentially sidestepping these fees, you might find the rental rates to be cheaper. You might even be able to drop off the car at the airport at no additional charge.

Customs entrance/exit fees

Don’t get caught off guard at border crossings with surprising fees. (Image: Christian Heilmann, Well traveled via Flickr CC BY 2.0)

Once you’ve decided on your destination, do research on the destination you are headed to see if it requires a visa. Also, check to see if there is an exit fee (a small fee charged at the border). Even if your destination doesn’t require a visa, you might still be stuck with an exit fee or “Air Passenger Duty.” At the time of booking, inquire whether your airline ticket includes the destination’s fees to avoid any surprises.

If you are traveling on a cruise, be wary of port fees. When a cruise ship docks at a port of call, they are charged a government-imposed port fee that is passed on to the consumer. Some cruise ships add this to the cost of the cruise.

Here’s how to avoid customs entrance and exit fees:

  • Customs entrance/visa fees: Avoid excess visa fees for last minute processing by applying well in advance. If you can, go directly to the embassy or consulate to apply for the visa. You’ll save on express mailing your travel documents. If you use a third-party service, the company will likely charge a service fee on top of the visa processing fees.
  • Exit fees: If you don’t want to deal with visa fees and exit fees, select destinations that don’t require visas or charge exit fees. Also, if there are multiple airports in a country, check to see if the fees charged are lower or eliminated from one airport to the next as the fees are not always uniform. Be warned that sometimes these fees need to be paid in cash upon departure, so you need to plan ahead for payment.
  • Port fees: Ask the cruise ship company or travel agent if the quoted price includes port fees (and all fees for that matter). Larger cruise liners tend to include them, but it doesn’t hurt to ask. If the port fees are piling up, book a cruise with fewer stops or book earlier as rates tend to be much lower when booked months in advance. Traveling during the off-season also helps drive costs down.

Rebooking fees

Airline ticket counter
Don’t get sticker shock when travel plans change. (Image: Eider Chaves, CB004903 via Flickr CC BY 2.0)

Life happens. Sometimes that means postponing your trip. While more and more airlines and travel booking websites are allowing travelers to make changes within 24 hours of booking, some do not. Also, what happens if a week after you book your trip, your plans change? Nearly all airlines charge a rebooking fee to passengers who need to change their itineraries and a cancelation fee for passengers who can’t make the trip at all. If you booked online through a travel site, many of them also add their own rebooking fee in addition to what the airline charges, so now you’re stuck with two fees that, in some cases, might total more than the price of your original ticket.

Avoid rebooking fees by booking on airlines and travel websites that offer a 24-hour or more flexible booking period. For hotels, look for options that allow you to cancel without penalty up to 24 hours before check-in. If you’ve spent a significant amount of money on your trip or want peace of mind, consider purchasing travel insurance to protect your purchase.

Reward travel fees

car and map
Travel should be care-free. Plan ahead to avoid stressing over fees. (Image: John Morgan, Life via Flickr CC BY 2.0)

What’s the point of free travel if you get saddled with hidden fees? Many airlines charge a fee to book a flight using frequent flier miles. In addition, airlines typically pass on fuel charges, taxes and airport fees to consumers, so even if the ticket is free and there’s no booking fee, you might still end up being charged for fuel and airport fees. The same goes for hotels, which may still charge resort fees and taxes and car rental companies, which may also add on a variety of fees.

Avoid reward travel fees by building up loyalty points and rewards with airlines, hotels and car rental agencies that don’t charge booking fees. Airlines like JetBlue and Southwest don’t charge a fee to book a reward flight. You can also use credit card points to purchase your flights or hotel.

Credit card transaction fees

credit card
Research before you swipe. (Image: Robert Scoble, Credit card of future via Flickr CC BY 2.0)

You’ve been embracing your inner shopaholic while abroad only to come home and find your credit card provider has slapped you with credit card transaction fees for each and every purchase you made abroad. Some credit cards and banks also charge a currency conversion fee.

Avoid credit card transaction fees by getting a credit card that doesn’t add a foreign transaction fee to your charges. While you’re at it, also get a card that offers rewards for your spending. Call your bank or credit card before you leave to find out about any and all fees that you may incur when traveling abroad. Also, when you’re in a store overseas and you’re presented with the option to pay in the local currency or that of your home country, always opt for the local currency. The dynamic currency conversion option is based on a poor exchange rate, which means you will end up paying more. Plus, your credit card company may still charge you a foreign transaction fee.

(Main Image: Julia P, I miss going away, all the time. via Flickr CC BY 2.0)

8 ways fees can bust your travel budget was last modified: June 26th, 2019 by Lauren Mack
Author: Lauren Mack (163 posts)

Lauren Mack has traveled to 40 countries on five continents, including Cuba, New Zealand, Peru and Tanzania. For many years, she called China, and then Taiwan, home. Countries at the beginning of the alphabet, particularly Antarctica, Argentina and Australia are on her travel bucket list. Lauren is a multimedia travel and food journalist and explorer based in New York City.