Thursday, April 10, 2008

Avoiding fees: Stupid Tips, Smart Tips

I hate it when I see a article with a catchy title like this one, Coping With Rising Travel Fees that I found on Digg.

There is really no useful information in that article and, in fact, some of it is out of date. This is really just a bunch of generalizations that could be found by reading the website of the airline, hotel, or rental car company you are actually using. This is very sloppy journalism at best.

I hate surcharges as much as anyone, and I actually have some real advice for avoiding them that goes beyond "find a company that doesn't charge them."

My advice: Don't pay them!

Do not pay any fee that you were not informed of in advance.
If you book a hotel or a rental car, and you have a price quoted in writing, insist on paying only that price. I have done this on numerous instances. When I reserve a rental car, I always ask the reservations agent for a written quote that includes all taxes, fees, and surcharges. Invariably, the price turns out differently, and I insist on the price I was quoted.

Dispute all charges that are unauthorized. Just because a company has your credit card number, they are not allowed to add unauthorized surcharges.

Don't pay any surcharge that was added after your reservation was made. This has been an issue recently as cruise lines being caught adding fuel surcharges after passengers
pay for their cruise. Airlines are also changing their baggage fees after you have purchased your ticket. Make sure you do not pay a fee that was not in effect at the time you paid for your flight.

Don't pay any "optional surcharges" I once checked into a hotel and the check in sheet listed the price of the room as well as a "safe fee." I told them I didn't need to use the safe, and they offered to remove the fee if I ask them again when I check out. I was checking out very early in the morning, and I insisted it be taken off right then and there.

Pack Smart, Not Less: I won't insult your intelligence by telling you to pack less to avoid paying more. I will advise that when packing multiple bags, you distribute the weight equally so that one bag doesn't get hit with the charge. If you are near the limit, pack the heaviest items in a roll on suitcase. Carry-ons do not have a weight limit, and anyways, you should always carry on a bag with any essentials and valuables.

Finally, weigh your bag empty. Some large bags with wheels and retractable handles actually weight 10-15 lbs by themselves. If you are pushing the weight limit, switch to a duffle bag. Duffles weigh almost nothing. I would gladly lug my bag from baggage claim to the car to save $50, or just get a cart or a skycap.

Don't pay any overweight baggage fees if the scale is not accurate: I have long suspected the baggage scales at the check in counter were not very accurate. I have even seen scales that read a few pounds before I put my bag on them. My suspicions were confirmed. The scales at the check in counter predate the overweight baggage fees as they were originally used to estimate baggage weight for the purposes of aircraft weight and balance. They were not designed to be accurate to any particular degree. I always weigh my bags at home to ensure they are under the 50 lb limit. If an airline ever tries to hit me with a $50 fee, I will report them to the appropriate authorities.

Get what you pay for or get a refund:
I once paid a $50 standby fee to catch an earlier flight. The flight was then delayed and I was successfully able to get a refund. If I ever had to pay a baggage fee, and my bag then was lost or delayed, you could bet that I would ask for the fee to be refunded.

Avoid taxes and surcharges by renting your car away from the airport:
Get a ride, take a hotel shuttle, or do anything you can to leave the airport without renting a car. When you need a car, use Enterprise or any other off site rental car company. Check first, but you can usually return the car to the airport when you depart without any additional cost. Your savings can be significant as every city likes to fund their new stadium or convention center by taxing out of town visitors with a hefty surcharge at the airport.

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