Many of us are desperate to travel this summer after a pandemic stifled our plans for years. But travelers — and I’m sorry to be a killjoy — should beware: Those seemingly cheap plane tickets or hotel rooms advertised online may be a trap to make you spend more than anticipated.
That’s because hotels and airlines, struggling to recoup their losses from the pandemic, are increasingly resorting to nickel-and-diming consumers with hidden charges, according to studies and travel experts. Regulators call these “junk fees.”
You have probably encountered junk fees at least a few times in your travels. The extra charges can come in many forms, such as fees for resort amenities, checked luggage and seat selection, and they’re typically not disclosed upfront when you use an online search engine. They creep in toward the end of a transaction.
This strategy in the travel industry, known as “unbundling,” is not new. But some fees, such as baggage and seat selection on planes, crept up during the pandemic, according to studies. And vague hotel resort fees, which are typically a daily bulk charge of $20 to $50 for basic services like Wi-Fi and parking, have become commonplace.
All told, hotel-related junk fees cost travelers roughly $3 billion a year, according to Consumer Reports. For airlines, revenue from ancillary fees, which include carry-on luggage, seat assignments and early boarding, rose to $102.8 billion in 2022, up 56 percent from the previous year, according to IdeaWorks, a consulting firm for airlines.
That means the days of using search engines like Google, Expedia and others to rapidly search for travel deals are long gone. You might be able to get an idea of the approximate cost of a ticket or hotel room, but you have to put in a lot more time and effort to tally up the real cost.
“The hotels and airlines want to make it difficult for you to really compare what your flight or hotel stay will cost because they don’t like being purchased based just on price,” said Henry Harteveldt, the president of Atmosphere Research, a travel analysis firm in San Francisco.
Junk fees have become so widespread that regulators say the practice must soon change. The Federal Trade Commission, which began an investigation into the fees last year, said it planned to announce rules restricting businesses from charging them in the coming months.
But until new laws come into effect, it’s on us to watch for deceptive pricing tactics and sidestep them when possible. Here are some ideas for how to do that.
What does a hotel junk fee look like?
Let’s say you’re booking a room this month at the Grayson Hotel by Hyatt. It may show up as $331 for a room per night in an online search tool like Google or Expedia. But once you are in the checkout process, the real price goes up to $421.
When you click on the details, you will see the added taxes, which you would expect. But less expected is a vague $34 destination fee — which includes Wi-Fi, gym access and a 10 percent discount at the hotel’s restaurant — charged daily. That’s about 8 percent of the cost of the room.
After a few days, those small charges add up.
“What we have is nontransparent, deceptive pricing,” said Chuck Bell, a director at Consumer Reports, who has been opposing junk fees for years. “The travel provider is reluctant to tell you the full price upfront, so they hide it.”
Though hotels make it difficult to see their resort fees, many resources online regularly track the charges.
Resort Fee Checker lets you search for a hotel to see if it charges resort fees and, if so, how much. NerdWallet, a personal finance site, conducted an analysis this year on the biggest offenders of resort fees. Wyndham Properties, Hyatt and IHG charged the highest, from 3.8 percent to 6.5 percent, on average, of the total cost of a room, the study found.
Another best practice is to check prices directly through a hotel’s website rather than a third-party agency like Expedia or Priceline. That’s because hotels occasionally charge different resort fees to those booking through third parties. And if you join hotel loyalty programs, they often offer to waive resort fees for returning customers.
Airlines make the process extra painful, because additional fees are generally not shown until deep into the ticket booking process. After you have already picked a flight and punched in your personal information, you are then shown what it would cost to select seats or check a bag.
By far the best rule of thumb is to become familiar with a brand’s business model and the types of fees it typically incurs, Mr. Harteveldt said. It has become common knowledge that budget airlines offering the cheapest tickets make up for the difference in price by charging more for basic amenities like seat selection and luggage.
An analysis by NerdWallet in February found that the budget brands Frontier and Spirit Airlines charged the most for seat selection, and that Alaska and Hawaiian Airlines charged the least.
If you choose an airline that charges for seat selection, you can opt not to select a seat and then hope to be able to do so with the customer service representative at the terminal. But that’s a gamble and is especially not ideal for families.
Putting in Time
If you want to travel on a budget, more labor is now necessary. After plugging in all the numbers for each vendor, tally up the totals with all the fees included. Only then will you be able to make true cost comparisons.
In the future, we hopefully won’t need to do this. Doug Farrar, a spokesman for the F.T.C., said that rather than give consumers advice on how to deal with the surprise charges, the agency was striving to make businesses cut junk fees out entirely with rules regulating the practice.
“We’re going to try to end it,” he said. But he added: “I don’t think you can avoid it, strictly speaking. It’s just baked into the process.”
Some brands are getting ahead of the regulatory crackdown by changing their methods. Marriott International said it had recently updated its room rates to include resort fees when people used its app and website to search for bookings. Hyatt said in a statement that it planned to do the same.
Of course, that doesn’t mean brands will stop charging the fees. But it will help to know immediately when a deal isn’t as great as it seems. Then you can book somewhere else.