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Unexpected Fees: The True Cost of Travel

passport money pocketOften when travelers price out a trip in rough terms for the first time, they mostly consider the Travel Triangle of airfare, hotel and rental car. You do a quick search on airfares, estimate hotel at $110 - $150/day and then just make a guess on the rental car; call it $20/day. So a four-day trip with a total airfare of $600 for three people gets a rough estimate of $1,200, more or less. Thus the common method for making the financial, logistical and emotional assessment of whether a trip is "worth it": $1,200 for an overdue family visit for a long weekend -- yeah, can do.

But once you start booking the actual trip, unexpected costs mount immediately, even before you stand up from your computer. Later, when you actually start traveling, you quickly become the target of an onslaught of unanticipated costs that can rival your original budget. So what's the true cost of your trip? This walk-through of a fairly typical trip will give you some sense of what to expect, and some tips on how to keep unforeseen costs under control.

Flight Fees: Airfare Can Be the Least of It
Most IT readers know all about baggage fees and can see them coming from a long way off, but it is worth tallying up the best and worst of these fees as we reckon what they do to a travel budget. Nearly all major airlines now charge for all checked bags, so unless you can muscle everything down into a carry-on, you can expect to shell something out here.

Most major airlines charge $25 for the first checked bag. Here's a quick survey:

- $25: American, Delta, Frontier ($20 online check-in), Hawaiian, Spirit, United, US Airways
- $20: Alaska
- Free: JetBlue, Southwest

Remember, the airlines collect baggage fees both coming and going (that is, on your outbound trip and again on your return trip), so when you research these fees, you should double the quoted amount, as you'll be paying it twice.

Cost per trip per person: Around $50.

How to beat these fees: See Seven Smart Ways to Bypass Baggage Fees. When you have a choice, if you can book away from airlines with higher fees, you can save money at both ends of your trip for every member of your travel party.

10 Ways to Find a Cheaper Airfare

Second Bag Bad; Third Bag, Forget About It
If one bag is worth $25, a second bag is worth even more; most of the airlines above charge $35 - $40 for a second checked bag. Go beyond two bags, and it will really cost you; a third checked bag costs $75 - $150 on most of the airlines listed above. Alaska bucks this trend, charging $20 per bag until you get to your fourth checked bag, which costs $50. At that point, you should be considering a moving company anyway.

Very few travelers ever check a second or third bag, so we won't include this in the final tally -- but heavy packers beware.

Worth a (Dishonorable) Mention: Baggage Fee Outliers
As aggressive as the major airlines have been about baggage fees, there are a couple of airlines that are even more shameless. Spirit Airlines in particular charges for pretty much everything, every step of the way. The airline famously offers $9 fares on many routes, but if you add up all the subsequent "optional" fees and required taxes, you will find almost without exception that the fares end up being the same and sometimes more than those of competitors who price flights in the more traditional fashion. When a $9 fare can be ratcheted up to a $250 fare after about five or six clicks of the mouse (beyond taxes, phone ticketing is $10, seat selection $1 - $50, "Unintended Consequences of DOT Regulations Fee" $2, paying for checked bags $20, paying for a carry-on bag $25, etc.), you know you are in a special, fee-crazed environment.

Spirit used to be nearly alone in its fee frenzy, but it appears that Frontier, which is currently expanding into a number of very small regional airports, will follow suit. It recently positioned a raft of new fees as "enhanced services," and justified a new charge for carry-on bags by saying, "Frontier's most loyal customers have made it very clear that finding overhead bin space for carry-on bags has become unacceptably difficult" -- double speak in the extreme. The carry-on fee will apply only to travelers booking through third-party sites, however; shame on those bad, bad, disloyal and bin-hogging people who book through Expedia or the like. Yeesh.

Let's also ignore these fees for our final tally, as the overall number of travelers on these airlines is fairly low.

More Airline Fees
Between deciding to take a flight and actually boarding, there are any number of situations where airlines can exact fees from you if you need just a little bit of help. Here are a few:

- Phone ticketing or assistance: $10 - $35 on most airlines
- Flight change fee (ouch): $50 - $300, plus the difference in fare
- Preferred seating: $4 - $99

Cost per trip per person: Taking a sort of median number and assuming you need one of these every fourth trip, we'll call this $25.

How to beat these fees: Use the airline's Web site exclusively and avoid calling the airline for anything, ever.

Secrets of the World's Best Airlines

Indirect TSA Traveler Privation Fee
airport restaurantThis isn't a direct fee, but all regular travelers know it -- the fact that you can't take some food or any drinks through security is going to cost you dearly on the other side, and is almost a guaranteed if indirect cost of going through security. Exacerbated by the premium prices airports charge for simple necessities like water, at a minimum you are paying $10 each way.

Cost per trip per person: $20.

How to beat these fees: Pack some solid snacks, and bring your own empty bottle to fill at a water fountain in the airport.

Hotel Fees: Sleeping Included, Nothing Else Guaranteed
Hotels are hotbeds of hidden fees; most of us know not to take anything from the minibar or the fridge, or to take the robes. But there is one thing few can live without these days: Internet access.

Internet access fees vary tremendously; some hotels provide a free wireless login, while others charge a hefty fee per device, ouch.

Here is a quick chart of some popular hotel internet fees:

- Holiday Inn, Comfort Inn, Homewood Suites, Wyndham: Free
- Loews: $14.95 per device per day, free Wi-Fi in the lobby
- Hyatt: $9.95 - $19.95, depending on property
- Embassy Suites: $9 - $12 per night
- Westin/Starwood: Anywhere from $9.95 to $24.95 per night (some hotels free)
- Marriott: From complimentary to $15 per night
- Crowne Plaza: From complimentary to $14.95 per night

Given the variation, this can range from zero expense to a heap of money.

Cost per trip: For the purposes of our tally, let's estimate around $50 for a four-day trip.

Many hotels offer free parking, but if you visit a hotel in New York, Chicago, Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles or almost any other major downtown, you will incur a hefty parking fee. A typical rate for overnight parking in these cases is $15 - $25/day of your stay. Additionally, most are valet or attended lots, so you drop another $2 - $4 in tips every time you get your car. This can come to a total of $25 - $30/day easily.

Cost per trip: For the sake of our tally, let's assume every fourth trip you have to do this, for four days; that is $100 per trip, or an average of $25.

How to beat these fees: Hotel Web sites typically include all of this information somewhere; you can book away from hotels that will heap on fees beyond the advertised nightly price. For more, see Hidden Hotel Fees.

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