I’m a big believer in budgets, especially when it comes to leisure expenses, so nothing irks me more than saving up a great sum for a vacation only to get nickel and dimed during the trip.
I always try to build some extra padding in my budgets, so I can cover additional expenses and unforeseen costs, but more and more I’m noticing that the travel industry is gradually adding fees on services that used to be complimentary.
In light of these new charges, I’ve compiled a comprehensive list of hidden travel fees – and tips on how to avoid them – so you can steer clear of budget pitfalls on your next vacation.
Booking Your Flight
When you book online, you actually save the travel companies time and money. Because of this, when you choose to call and speak with a live agent, they’ll often charge you for the personal attention. For example, when I called American Airlines about a booking question, they offered to reserve my airfare over the phone – for an extra $10. United, JetBlue, and Southwest all charge for offline reservations as well.
Pro Tip: Call for clarification or to ask any questions, but book online either directly with the airline or through a third-party site like Expedia. Just check the total price to make sure there’s no booking fee.
I booked a flight on CheapTickets, and something came up that forced me to reschedule. I had to re-book the same itinerary for a flight that was a week earlier. When I called customer service to reschedule, they said I’d be charged a $150 refund fee, which was almost as much as the price of my original ticket.
Pro Tip: Some airlines, such as Continental, offer a 24-hour flexible booking period, during which you can get a refund or change your flight without penalty.
If you’re spending a significant amount on airfare, it may be worthwhile to purchase trip insurance, like Expedia’s Travel Protection Plan, to protect you from wasting the money if an illness, lost luggage, fender bender, or personal emergency ruins your vacation.
Frequent flyer programs seem to offer great deals, but they’re not so great if you have to pay extra fees for your “free flight”. In addition to fuel charges and airport fees, some airlines will charge you just to use the miles. According to Airfare Watchdog, Continental and Delta charge $75 to book a flight with miles if it’s too last-minute (3 days on Continental, 22 days on Delta).
Pro Tip: Avoid the fee by booking early or using miles from an airline that doesn’t have time constraints. JetBlue and Southwest, for example, both let you book a flight with your miles/points without a fee.
The jury is out whether or not fuel surcharges are just another marketing technique to mask fare increases. You’ll have to pay a fuel surcharge even if your child will sit on your lap the entire flight, or if you’re redeeming frequent flyer miles. Janice Hough claims in Consumer Traveler that fuel surcharges on international flights can cost as much as $700.
Pro Tip: Southwest doesn’t charge fuel surcharges, so they’re worth checking out as long as the total price of your ticket is cheaper than or comparable to the cost of other airlines.
At the Airport
5. Checked Baggage
Did you know that last year, airlines generated $3.4 billion in revenue from checked baggage fees? Since 2007, when airlines started charging for your checked luggage, travelers have been learning to consolidate must-have luggage items, or else they’ve been suffering the excessive airline fees.
Pro Tip: Leave your toiletries at home, especially when you’re traveling to hotels that supply shampoo, lotion, and soap. Not only can you then forgo the checked bag, but you also don’t have to worry about getting through security with liquids.
6. Overweight Baggage
If you must check a bag, you can save an average of $50 per bag by avoiding the surprise of an overweight baggage fee. Just weigh your luggage before you leave, and you’ll save time and money at the checkout counter.
Pro Tip: The day before your flight, step on a regular household scale and weigh yourself. Then hold your bag and step back on the scale. If the difference between your weight with the bag and your personal weight is more than 50 pounds, then you’re likely to get hit with an overweight baggage charge. Redistribute some of the heavier items to your carry-on bag, which has a size limit but not a weight limit, and you can skip the fee.
7. Exit/Tourist Fee
When traveling home from Ecuador, I was caught off guard by the $25 exit fee that I owed. It wasn’t a whole lot of money compared to the airfare, but I was surprised that the fee wasn’t included in the ticket price. In the U.S., when you buy tickets online, companies like CheapTickets, Orbitz, and Expedia will show you the total ticket price including any tourist fees.
Pro Tip: If you’re traveling internationally, do diligent research. Not all international vendors will let you know about exit fees in advance.
Airlines still offer many of the features that they implemented before economic trouble forced them to cut back, but now you have to pay for a lot of the comfort and convenience that you may have gotten used to. Need WiFi to get some work done at the airport or in-flight? Boingo starts at $6.95 a day.
Pro Tip: You can’t avoid the fee unless you’re at an airport that offers free WiFi, but you can reduce your need for a connection on the plane. Plan ahead, and open windows and tabs with all of the information and applications you’d like to run.
By opening everything while on your home connection, you’ll get access to everything from documents to flash-based games while you’re in flight. You won’t be able to refresh the page, and you’ll have to save offline versions of files, but at least you’ll have free digital access to the information.
Airport security is too tight to let you bring your water into the boarding area, so if you get thirsty at the gate, you can end up spending $4 or more for a bottle of water.
Have you ever noticed that vending machine prices go up after you go through security? The airport vendors know that you have limited options, and they’ll charge you accordingly. You can always get a complimentary beverage on the plane, but the small cups never hold enough for me.
Pro Tip: You can’t bring the water in, but an empty bottle is just fine. Pack a reusable water bottle in your carry-on bag, and fill it at a water fountain near your gate. If you don’t have a reusable bottle, then order a cheap drink, like a kid-sized fountain soda from a fast food counter, and fill that with water. It’ll still be cheaper than overpriced bottled water.
As with water, vendors inflate the price of food inside the gate. Jason Kesslet, a blogger at Bon Appetit, complained that “a Quarter Pounder value meal at a McDonald’s in Los Angeles costs $5.69. A Quarter Pounder value meal at McDonald’s in Los Angeles International Airport costs $7.19.”
Pro Tip: After a long day of traveling, I get hungry, but I never want to spend too much money on a simple lunch. Usually I pack an energy bar in my carry-on bag. It’s full of fiber and protein to keep me full and doesn’t take up much space.
Your Rental Car
11. Rental Insurance
Taxi and bus fares can add up quickly, so while a rental car may sound like a costly choice, it’s often the best way to save money on longer trips. While the “per diem” rental quote should include taxes and fees, many renters make the mistake of purchasing additional insurance when they’re already covered.
Pro Tip: Rental car companies offer expensive insurance policies, but most credit cards provide collision coverage when you pay for your rental with your card. Also, place a quick call to your car insurance provider to find out if your policy covers rental car claims in addition to your personal vehicle.
Drivers under the age of 25 used to be barred from renting a car at most companies. Now, rental companies let drivers between the ages of 21 and 25 rent – and charge them more money for their age. The rate is usually a $20 to $30 daily surcharge, since that age bracket statistically gets into more accidents than any other group. Drivers between the ages of 18 and 21 will experience even tougher restrictions and higher surcharges.
Pro Tip: Laws vary by state, so be sure to shop around. New York City is pretty strict, but I imagine lesser populated areas will be more lenient.
13. Extra Driver
If you are traveling with a group and you know there will be multiple drivers, a rental car company can charge you up to $30 per day for the additional driver, supposedly to cover insurance costs for the extra person.
Pro Tip: Stick to one driver if you can. If you have to report more than one driver, then choose someone over 25.
14. Key Replacement
If you lose the car keys, you’ll have to pay up to $300 for a replacement. When I rented a car from Avis, they gave me a supersized key with a bulky key chain, so even if I dropped it in my purse, it was hard to miss.
Pro Tip: Leave the key in your hotel room if you don’t plan on using the rental car when you leave. That way if you get pickpocketed, you won’t have to go through the hassle – and expense – of replacing it.
15. Alternate Drop-Off
Are you planning to drive your rental car from one city to another? Especially if you’re not starting or finishing at an airport, you’ll probably pay extra to drop off the vehicle at a different location. According to Consumer Reports, the lowest drop-off charge was $50, but Avis charges as much as $1,000 for certain cases.
Pro Tip: It may be cheaper to take a bus or train. While you might not have as much control over the schedule, at least you can relax or work, rather than spending your vacation time on a stressful drive.
Most rental car companies are direct about this charge: If you don’t return the car with a full tank, they’ll charge you extra to refill it. If you’re expecting to pay a few cents on the gallon for the courtesy of a refill, however, you might be in for a surprise. You could be charged as much as $8 per gallon if you return the car with anything but a full tank.
Pro Tip: It’s always a good idea to fill up the tank before returning the rental car, but avoid any gas stations close to the rental car company or right off the highway, where gas stations often charge more per gallon.
At the Hotel
17. Resort Fee
Believe it or not, many hotels will charge what is known as a “hotel resort fee” upon checkout. Often, this fee will be an extra 10% per night. Thus, even if you have already prepaid through a site like Expedia or TripAdvisor, you will have to pay an extra 10% when you checkout. It’s essentially a higher nightly rate, hidden in the fine print.
Pro Tip: Read the fine print, and remember that all hotels must disclose this fee upon booking. Make sure to consider the fee when you decide if this hotel indeed offers a reasonable rate.
The rule of thumb used to be that the snack bar fridge was pay-as-you-eat, but now everything from the bottled water on the counter to the cookie on top of the minibar might not be as complimentary as you think. Even if you just open the door to the minibar, you could be charged a “restocking fee” merely for peeking.
Pro Tip: Just don’t touch the minibar – at all. Most hotels have a convenience store or drug store nearby, so pick up some snacks there.
I stayed at a furnished temporary apartment when I moved across the country, and there was a bottle of carbonated water on the dining room table. I wasn’t sure if I’d be charged for it, and when I called the front desk, I learned that I was right to be suspicious. It wasn’t a gift or a freebie – it was an expensive bottle.
Pro Tip: Because I was going to stay in the apartment for over a week, I bought a $3 plastic water pitcher and filled it with tap water. Whenever I got thirsty, I’d fill a glass with cold water. My $3 investment saved me plenty over the course of the week.
If you drive to a hotel with a rental car from the airport or on a road trip directly from home, you may have to pay a valet or parking fee. Unlike hotels in rural or suburban areas, city hotels may add a garage or valet fee because parking is limited in high-traffic areas.
Pro Tip: Make sure to ask about parking accommodations before you book the hotel. Sometimes valet parking in a private hotel lot is cheaper than at a nearby garage or with street parking.
21. Luggage Storage
Most hotels will ask you to check out at noon or even earlier, but if you want to explore the area in the afternoon, you might have to pay to keep your bags at the hotel. Even if this isn’t a formal fee at nicer hotels, it’s customary to tip the concierge or bellhop on a per-bag basis.
Pro Tip: When you check in, ask if you can have a late checkout, and if they say no, ask again on your last morning at the hotel anyway. Ask if they’re expecting to fill the room later that day, and if they’re not, they’ll probably let you keep your things in the room, especially if it’s not a peak travel time.
If you’re staying at a hotel with a pool or near a beach, you may face a charge for using towels. When you enter the pool area, look for a sign before you snag a clean towel. If you borrow one from the bathroom, make sure to return it if you don’t want to get charged.
Pro Tip: If you know you’re going to the pool or the ocean, bring your own towels from home. Hotel towels are usually pretty small anyway, so you’re not just saving money – you’re also guaranteeing that you’ll have a more pleasant and comfortable sunbathing session.
Most hotels offer complimentary safes for storing valuables, but lately some have been charging several dollars a night. If you’re staying for more than a few days, this fee can really add up.
Pro Tip: Your best move is to not bring your valuables in the first place. If losing them would ruin your vacation, why run the risk? Still, check the fine print before you book, because some hotels will charge this fee regardless of whether or not you actually use the safe.
When the Hilton Garden Inn charged Rodney Harnon 75 cents for a newspaper he neither requested nor read, he sued. The class-action lawsuit filed in July is yet to be ruled on, but it raises an important question: Is it fair for hotels to charge you for an “extra” that you don’t use?
Pro Tip: If you see in the fine print that your hotel charges for the paper that they leave at the door, call the front desk and ask them not to deliver it. Just remember, it may be worth it to take the Sunday paper and the coupons that come with it if you’re into extreme couponing.
25. Fitness Center
The standard hotel fitness center has a stationary bike, a treadmill, and some hand weights, but if you’re staying in a swankier place, the fitness center may come with a high-end gym. Be wary of the nicer fitness centers; some hotels are charging a daily fee to cover operation costs.
Pro Tip: Instead of using the expensive gym, take a run or a walk outside. It’s free and you can see more of the area. If you have to take your exercise routine indoors, go for a swim in the hotel pool or run up some stairs instead of taking the elevator. There are other ways to exercise without a gym membership as well.
Hotel guests can expect to pay about $4 a day in energy surcharges. But some hotels charge well beyond this rate. Caribbean resorts and hotels, for example, tend to take advantage of this surcharge. Atlantis in the Bahamas charges up to $12.95 per adult per day.
Pro Tip: For longer stays, these fees can add up quickly. Don’t be afraid to negotiate, especially if it’s the off-season. Call ahead and ask for a better rate on the room if they won’t budge on the energy surcharge.
I was staying at a hotel and was in a hurry, so I just used the ATM in the lobby. The fee was $3.50 to use the ATM, and then my bank charged me another $2.50 for using a machine outside the network. I ended up paying $6 for the convenience. Hotel ATMs can charge higher ATM fees to capitalize on hurried travelers like me.
Pro Tip: If you think you’ll need cash, plan ahead and bring some with you. When you’re out and about, keep an eye out for your bank’s ATM or use an app like the ATM Hunter to find free or low-cost access to your own money. There are also things to consider when using credit cards overseas.
On a Cruise
28. Port Fees
When I tried to book a cruise directly through the cruise company, I clicked through to make my reservation, only to see an additional $200 added on to the total price. I wasn’t surprised to see a list of various taxes, but I didn’t expect to see a port fee. When a cruise ship docks at a port of call, they’re charged a port fee, which the cruise line passes on to travelers. These fees are government-imposed and vary based on destination.
Pro Tip: Port fees vary by destination, and they’re usually included in the cruise fare. But if you’ll be going with a smaller cruise line, double check to make sure these fees are actually included.
29. Built-In Gratuities
Did you think that the un-priced drinks at dinner were free and the margarita you bought at the bar was already paid for? Think again. Many cruise lines add a 15% gratuity fee to beverages, even if it wasn’t served to you by the waitstaff.
Pro Tip: Bartenders usually expect tips, so the gratuity fee is reasonable, but if your cruise line charges a gratuity fee, keep it in mind before you slip even more cash into the tip jar.
In most hotels, Internet is available in your room and it’s usually free. However, connectivity is tougher on cruise ships. You’ll usually find separate business centers with a wired Internet connection, available for use at $1 or so a minute. The newer ships, like Carnival Valor, may offer WiFi throughout the ship, but it still probably isn’t as fast as land-based hot spots.
Pro Tip: If you can’t imagine life without Internet, wait until you get off the ship and can get to a land-based Internet cafe or coffee shop with free WiFi. Connections off the ship are usually much faster and cheaper.
If your cruise lasts more than a few days, you might need to do laundry. The higher-end cruise ships will offer dry cleaning at several dollars a shirt, and you’ll be charged by the pound (or the bag) for room service laundering.
Pro Tip: Sometimes you just have to do laundry. But you can certainly lighten the load if you pack plenty of undergarments and clothes with wrinkle-resistant fabric.
32. Shore Excursions
Even all-inclusive cruises don’t include your expenses during shore excursions. If you’re looking forward to an adventure-filled vacation of kayaking, snorkeling, or sightseeing, don’t overlook the cost of tour operators. You can book on the cruise through their recommended vendors, but they go fast, so register as soon as you board.
Pro Tip: One of my favorite cruising memories was renting a Jeep in the Caribbean and going beach hopping with my sister and parents. Instead of paying for a guided tour, we spent less and were able to explore the island on our own time (e.g. one of the best things to do in Aruba).
A dollar or two here may not seem like a big deal, and even a twenty dollar fee there might just sound like something you have to tolerate. But guess what? You don’t.
With a little planning and research, you can avoid many of the fees I listed above. Perhaps more importantly, you can at least get rid of the surprise and build some of these more imposing costs into your initial budget. Needing to pay an extra $50 in port fees, for example, is far easier to take if you’ve saved for it over a few months, rather than getting slapped with it in the middle of a trip. In the end, you can’t get out of all of these expenses, but you can adjust your plan accordingly.
Have you ever gotten hit with an unexpected fee on your vacation? What could you have done to avoid it?