TRAVEL & LEISURE
Irked by airlines’ ancillary fees? Hold that pose. They’re going to be around for a while yet – in fact, there’s going to be more.
By Judy Ferring
Baggage fees get the most attention. Every airline has its own schedule for which bags are subject to extra fees. As a general rule, the more expensive your ticket in the first place, the more luggage you’ll be allowed to check without charge. It helps if you belong to a frequent flyer program. It probably helps more if you learn to pack light, even keep your baggage to one suitcase to avoid a checked-bag fee. But even that may not exempt you entirely from a baggage fee of some kind.
Some find it less expensive – and possibly less exasperating - to ship their luggage ahead. But the savings is probably not there very often. And if some of your luggage is actually sports equipment – golf bags, ski equipment, surf boards, etc. – some recreational destinations have made deals with the airlines that serve them to put that equipment in the cargo hold for free. The reasoning: it’s worth underwriting those vacationers to get them to the resorts that support local economies.
The travel industry is becoming more and more conscious of the difference between leisure and business travelers. But that difference may be changing, both because more road warriors want to stay home and because the cost of travel is convincing their employers that there may be better alternatives, especially in teleconferencing technologies. So some new fees seem to be gingerly testing how far the airlines can go with business travelers as opposed to leisure travelers.
Consider Spirit Airlines’ recent announcement that it had reduced baggage fees for members of its $9 Fare Club and that those same members could buy some fares of one penny, plus fuel, taxes and reservation fees. In what seemed an afterthought, the airline added that it would now charge a fee for carry-on bags and priority boarding was being thrown into the deal. The combination of a single carry-on and a penchant for priority boarding is the quintessential profile of a business traveler. He wants on early so as to snag a storage bin up front , take a seat on the aisle and stuff his briefcase under the seat in front of him; it makes it easier to disembark at almost a dead run. The industry is watching to see how successful Spirit Airlines is with what could be a whole new class of economical business travel.
Comfort is also to be had at a price – and it goes beyond what fare class you buy. For a fee, a few airlines will seat you in a row that provides extra legroom. (Cheapflights.com has a table that shows the amount of legroom available on a number of airlines, and explains how the airlines calculate it. Just reading it will make you uncomfortable. ) In some cases, those roomier seats are just behind the bulkhead or in an exit row.
But several airlines have retro-fitted their seating, taking out a two or three rows in economy in order to create a few roomier seats. Often that is called “premium economy” class; it’s more expensive than economy, less than business class – and it’s usually snapped up by business travelers.
So if you want more room at a relatively cheap price, book premium economy more than two weeks ahead. And if you’re booking yourself online, think twice before accepting the option of selecting your seat later, even if there’s a fee. The odds of it being there when you return aren’t all that good. A short flight, say less than three hours, may be worth the gamble. Losing for a flight longer than that can be sheer agony.
Moreover, it often is not the guarantee it appears to be. Another traveler may claim to have the same seat assignment, and sometimes it may be true. You’ll have to be prepared to stand your ground if you really want that seat – or don’t want the alternative. Remain pleasant but firm; the crew member who may eventually have to settle the problem has the power to make a passenger sorry for bad behavior but will gratefully take advantage of the passenger who seems willing to give in quickly
Some other fees are easier to duck.
Don’t want to pay for a blanket or pillow? Wear a jacket that you can take off if the plane isn’t over-cooled; wear socks if you suffer from cold feet. Some people even carry small blow-up neck rests rather than pay for the pillow
Don’t want to pay for a meal or snacks? So far, passengers are able to carry food aboard but don’t expect that to last much longer. Sooner or later, security measures are likely to limit that to the same three ounces you’re allowed for toothpaste or deodorant. And airlines are quickly gearing up by equipping their crews with devices that allow them to take credit card payments for drinks, meals, snacks and even purchases from gift catalogs and duty-free shops. In fact, several no longer accept cash for in-flight purchases.
Now, here’s the kicker: some airlines already charge a “convenience fee” for accepting credit card payments. And there is talk of that practice spreading.
There are other airline fees labeled “convenience,” as well:
- Use of the fast lane for security checks. While this may be useful at a few airports, most have designated lanes for slow-, medium- and fast-moving travelers. It’s easy to spot the difference: family groups move slowly. Travelers with one bag, their coats already folded on their arms and slip-on shoes are going prepared to go through quickly.
- Use of the airline lounge, even if you aren’t a member of its frequent flier club. This could be worthwhile; the lounges are quiet and comfortable and the lounge attendants remind guests when flights are boarding. On the other hand, if you are on a long trip and using a ticket issued by one of the alliances (Star, SkyTeam or oneworld), lounge access is often included. Another alternative:
- In-flight movies, games and Internet access: these are all a matter of individual choice and capabilities. Movie screens that descend from the overhead are too difficult to see; most seatback trays barely fit my laptop.
- Changing your flight: if the change is strictly your doing, you’ll pay. If it’s because the airline cancelled, they’ll usually give you a break by waiving the fee if you rebook within a certain length of time. From the airlines’ point of view, they’re being generous – after all, they lose money from cancelled or delayed flights. But it just doesn’t always work well – especially if you end up needing to transfer to another airline, spend several hours in the airport (the bars, shops and restaurants profit though), or even rent a hotel room for overnight. Trip insurance can help; a good agent will be able to help more.
- Booking by phone: airlines want you to book on their web sites because it costs them less in overhead. The fee varies between airlines but is in itself usually nominal – getting caught up in some of the other fees can add up. Spend the money on a good travel agent – especially if your trip involves a flight of more than five hours – seems like a better use of the money.
The travel agent will also know about the new fees that are cropping up at hotels. Like the airlines, many are finding ancillary income streams. Look for charges for cancelling a reservation or checking out a day early. Similarly, if you decide to extend your stay past the original date, don’t expect to pay the same amount.
There are other hotel fees that, like their airline counterparts, will raise the hair on the back of your neck.
Consider the mini-bar restocking fee. Never mind that this makes little sense; if you bought an 85-cent candy bar for $3, the hotel has already made a healthy profit. But because of the configuration of some automated mini-bars, you could be hit with a restocking fee even if you consumed nothing. It happens with those that record the movement of an item from its spring-loaded holder; so if you remove a bottle to read the label and think deeply about the price before putting it back, you’ve been charged.
Moreover, some mini-bars load the bottles on their sides, cap pointed forwards. Some guests have been known to unscrew those caps and drain the bottles without ever lifting them from their cradles. Somebody’s eventually going to get charged. If you do not intend to use the mini-bar and a key is offered when you check in, turn it down and ask that it be noted on our bill record. If you accept the key and think you might use the mini-bar, inspect it when you arrive in your room and notify the front desk of any empty slots.
That said, there’s a good chance that neither precaution will be necessary. Inspect your bill at check out and if you spot any suspected discrepancies, discuss them with the clerk. Most will accept your word that you did not consume the alcohol recorded.
In-room Internet fees are also often problematic. I am one of those people who is seldom successful at making the uplink work, even with the help of the hotel guru. But the attempt is usually recorded as a charge. If it didn’t work, it didn’t work; speak up and it will likely be deleted from the bill.
On the other hand, just because you can stuff that fluffy bathrobe into your suitcase out of sight doesn’t mean its absence won’t be noted. And they do have your credit card number, plus a clear warning on the closing statement that charges levied after billing has been closed will be added to the card charges. It takes honesty on both sides.
In fact, at some hotels, that last charge could well be a “bag holding fee,” levied against those of us who ask to leave a bag with the porter after check-out so that we can attend one more conference session or browse one more shop before heading for the airport. Ask if there is such a fee. If the answer’s no, be sure to compensate with a good tip for the porter who’s accepted responsibility for your belongings. It’s still likely to be less than the $5 to $20 you’d otherwise be charged.
But don’t turn down that $20 fee either, especially if it’s charged at a conference. Ask what you get for the money. Sometimes it includes delivering your luggage to your airline for your flight home. Sure you might have to pay the additional airline baggage-check fee. But imagine getting to the airport, even waiting there, without having to drag that piece of carry-on all over. Like the man said: priceless.