Travel fees can ruin your vacation. That’s never been more true than now, when vacation time is in short supply and resources are limited. All it takes is a “gotcha” surcharge to screw everything up. But how do you avoid travel fees?

As someone who listens to people complain about their vacations every day, I used to be skeptical when people said a single fee or surcharge had the power to turn a good trip into a bad one. But now I understand. Some of these extras are truly outrageous, and customers often have no choice about paying them.

It’s time for a change.

“Hotels are willing to do what is necessary to offer customers a positive experience,” says Michael McCall, a professor at Michigan State University’s School of Hospitality Business. “Their survival depends on it.”

The same can be said for virtually every other sector of the travel industry, from airlines to vacation rentals. And yet the customer-hostile fees that have defined the travel industry for the last decade or more remain firmly in place, even during a pandemic-induced recession. They include a myriad of car rental extras, hotel resort fees and vacation rental extras. But there are ways to avoid travel fees.

Note: This is the second of a two-part series on avoiding travel fees in a post-pandemic world. Here’s the first part about avoiding airline fees.

How to avoid auto rental fees

Car rental fees are some of the trickiest in the book. That’s because they often masquerade as non-negotiable taxes. For example, do you know what a license fee is? Or a tire disposal fee? You might find them on your final bill. (Answer: One covers the expense of licensing a car rental fleet, a figure that should be rolled into the cost of doing business. The other covers the cost of — you guessed it — throwing away tires.) 

Honest car rental companies disclose these quasi-mandatory fees when they quote a car rental rate. Some will wait until the final screen to pull a “gotcha” and raise your rate by 20% to 30%. A select few wait until you’re at the counter.

The worst auto rental fee is “mandatory” insurance. That’s where you show up at the car rental counter and a representative tells you that you don’t have the right insurance. It can double the cost of your rental. Honest auto rental companies always disclose their insurance requirements up front.

Fortunately, there’s a workaround. If you arrive at the counter and a representative presents you with an estimate that includes all of these junk fees and forces you to accept the insurance, walk away. Car rentals are usually fully refundable. Book with a more reputable operator who won’t play games with you.

How to avoid hotel fees

There’s only one hotel fee that consistently drives guests crazy: the resort fee. This surcharge, often tacked on to your bill after a hotel displays an initial price quote on its site, covers extras like the use of the pool and exercise equipment and having “free” local calls. As I’ve noted in past stories, the fees are spreading quickly and can sometimes double the cost of your room.

Hotel fees are a great example of “drip” pricing — displaying a low rate and then adding to it as you go through the booking process. Although the Federal Trade Commission warned hotels against this type of pricing, they have continued to do it. Why? As I explained in a recent Washington Post column, guests keep falling for it.

You can avoid travel fees like these by reviewing the final booking screen carefully. If you find an unwanted resort fee on your bill, you try to negotiate it off your folio. If you can’t, consider a credit card dispute. Many banks will side with their customers and credit them for the fee if they can prove the hotel added the resort fee without sufficient disclosure. No one should be paying these fees, particularly at a time like this.

How to avoid vacation rental fees

Vacation rentals are a booming business during the pandemic, as travelers try to find safer accommodations. Vacation rental owners and the companies that facilitate the bookings have welcomed them with open arms — and new travel fees. In recent months, the major online booking sites have added the ability to create new fees, many of which have no clear connection to the rental. The worst may be the practice of charging an extra fee for larger groups.

Here’s how it works: Say you have a family of five. You find a reasonably priced rental in your favorite vacation destination. But then the owner asks how many people are in your party, and suddenly the price of the rental doubles. The rental may accommodate six people, but it’s priced based on double occupancy. So when you add the other three members of your family, the owner charges an extra $20 per person per day. Outrageous? Yes, but quickly becoming the norm in the vacation rental business.

The fix: Stay the heck away from vacation rental owners who engage in this kind of pricing. Clever vacation rental guests may consider lying about the number of people in their party to avoid a travel fee, but as my mother used to say, two wrongs don’t make a right. It’s better to deny these rental owners your business and let market forces move them to do the right thing.

Whether you’re driving or flying, staying in a hotel or in a vacation rental, the travel industry will do its best to hit you with unwanted fees. The best companies are upfront about any surcharges, but some won’t tell you until you get to the last booking screen — or later. You can leverage your credit card to avoid some of the travel fees. But ultimately, you can steer clear of these extras by carefully screening your travel company before you book.

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