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Overview

Don't get tripped up by travel charges

Thirteen ways to dodge all those add-on fees

Last reviewed: February 2010

You may remember a time when airline travel was more pleasurable than it is today. Drinks, food, and movies were included in the ticket price. People were polite. Blankets were thick enough to keep you cozy. The cabins were so roomy that the child behind you with restless leg syndrome couldn't reach your seat. Not that things were perfect: Passengers smoked away, and tickets generally cost more.

Now you have to wait on line for hours to take off your shoes and have a stranger pat you down. Cramped cabins put your seatback in easy reach of kicking tykes. And although ticket prices have dropped, airlines now charge fees for services that were once free, including checking your bags, switching to a better seat, or sipping a soft drink.

Those fees won't be departing soon, say travel analysts, because they've boosted struggling airline revenues. In 2008 airlines earned $10.3 billion from this so-called "ancillary revenue." And travelers now have to pay add-on fees at hotels and rental-car companies, too.

Obviously many taxes, surcharges, and fees are non-negotiable, since they're levied by airport authorities or federal, state, and local governments. Luckily, many other charges can be avoided if you follow the tips we've outlined below.

When you fly

Be flexible

Airlines now impose a $10 to $50 surcharge if you want to travel on days they consider "peak." Priceline.com has calendars that show the cheapest days to fly particular routes. Adjust your travel dates accordingly if you can.

Pack lightly

Fees for your first checked bag range from $15 to $25. If you can't avoid checking bags, at least consolidate your travel party's luggage to keep the number to a minimum. Or—if your itinerary allows it—fly Southwest, the only large U.S. carrier that doesn't charge for one or even two checked bags.

Try booking online

Most domestic airlines now charge up to $35 to book by telephone and as much as $45 if you buy at a ticket counter. Making a reservation on the carrier's Web site is usually—but not always—free.

Take a snack

In many economy sections, you'll have to fork over some greenbacks to get food and drinks. Among the five largest carriers, only Continental still offers free meals in domestic economy.

When you stay at a hotel

Go to the source

You can use third-party sites like Expedia and Travelocity to scope out hotel prices, but always compare those deals with the ones you can get on the hotel's Web site before you book. The hotel's site generally won't charge the service fee that other travel sites impose.

Postpone checking your e-mail

Some hotels—particularly high-end ones—charge $9.95 or more each day you log on to the Web. The travel site Kayak provides a handy guide to Internet access charges at www.travelpost.com/hotel-internet-access.aspx. If you'll need to go online, consider joining the hotel's loyalty program. Some are free, and the perks include Web access.

Dine out

A room-service burger can run you $20 or more, especially considering the "service charges," "room-service charges," and "delivery charges" (and no, they're not the same). The concierge or another hotel staff member can recommend spots to find good food at a good price.

When you rent a car

Plan ahead

If one person is willing to do all the driving, you'll save the $12 or so a day in additional driver charges (spouses and domestic partners may be exempt from this fee). Drivers under 25 may have to pay as much as $60 more a day. Also, returning a car late could incur hourly or daily surcharges. Extra fees may also apply if you rent one-way or return the vehicle to a different location.

Read the contract's fine print

Opt out of extras you'll be charged for even if you don't use them. For example, programs like PlatePass let you zip through toll lanes and have the bill sent directly to the rental company. But some rental companies, including Hertz, impose a daily fee for the service whether you use it or not.

Use your own gear

You'll pay more for optional equipment you may be able to bring from home, including navigation systems, bike racks, and child safety seats.

Consider a mileage cap

The number of miles you can drive each day without paying an unlimited mileage fee is typically 150. If you don't plan to drive more than that, opt for a cap. At Thrifty, it will save you $3 to $7 a day.

Top off the tank

Make sure you fill the car with gas before you return it. Refueling fees can be more than double the amount local gas stations charge.

Cancel your reservation

At press time Avis and Budget were preparing to impose no-show fees to customers who book a reservation but don't rent.

This article appeared in Consumer Reports Money Adviser.

Posted: February 2010 — Consumer Reports Money Adviser issue: February 2010