Often 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.com 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 if you're flying within the U.S. or to various other parts of North America. (The exception is, of course, Southwest, which allows two free checked bags.) 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.
Baggage fees rise exponentially if you're checking more than one suitcase. Since most of us only check a single bag, we won't include these additional costs in our final tally, but they're worth being aware of if you're a heavy packer.
Note also that a few ultra-discount airlines, Spirit and Frontier, charge a fee for carry-on bags that are too large to fit under the seat in front of you. Again, we won't include these fees in our total because the number of passengers on these airlines is fairly low.
Cost per trip per person: $50.
How to beat these fees: See Seven Smart Ways to Bypass Baggage Fees. When you have a choice, if you can pack lighter or book away from airlines with higher fees, you can save money at both ends of your trip for every member of your travel party.
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: $5 - $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: Purchase trip insurance that will cover you in case your plans change, or wait to book until you're certain of your plans. Use the airline's website exclusively and avoid calling the airline for anything, ever.
Indirect TSA Traveler Privation Fee
This 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.
Wi-Fi charges vary tremendously; some hotels provide a free wireless login, while others charge a hefty fee per device, ouch. You could spend anywhere from nothing to $30 a day, depending on where you stay and how many gadgets you bring along.
Many hotels offer free parking, but if you're staying downtown in a major city, you'll nearly always incur a hefty parking fee. A typical rate for overnight parking in these cases is $15 - $25 per day. 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: Let's estimate $50 for a four-day trip for Wi-Fi. As for parking, 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 websites 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.
Rental Cars: Kids Will Cost You (and So Will Your Partner)
By now I can probably assume that our readers don't fall for hard sells on rental car insurance (for which you most likely already have coverage through either your car insurance company or your credit card company) or gasoline refill schemes, which -- unless you are certain you can return your car to the lot with an absolutely empty tank -- always tilt heavily in the rental car company's favor.
Rental car rates are rife with ancillary fees and taxes. In fact, a large number of local building and improvement projects, as well as sports teams, are supported in large part by taxes on car rentals. You can see most of these fees when you actually book your car rental; this is why a rental quote of $13/day for a four-day rental never adds up to $52, but to more like $92. But since you can actually see these fees when you make your rental reservation, and in most cases can't make the reservation without agreeing to them, I will only mention these in passing rather than counting them in our tally.
If you want to read more about these types of built-in fees, Car Rental Hidden Costs has a lot of info right near the top of the article.
If you are traveling with kids under the age of 8 or 9, however, have your credit card handy. A child seat or booster seat for older kids will run you anywhere from $9 to $13 per day, based on numbers we found from Budget, Hertz, Avis and Enterprise.
And if you want anyone else to be able to drive the car (legally, at least; a lot of renters fudge this one), it will cost you anywhere from $10 - $15 more per day to add an additional driver, though some companies permit your spouse to drive for free. So if your significant other wakes up early and wants to sprint to the coffee shop, add another $10 to the $5 cost of a morning latte.
Cost per trip per person: Since many but not all travelers travel with either a kid or a significant other, let's round both of these to $25.
How to beat these fees: This is a tough one, as in most places, a child or booster seat is required by law for kids under 8 or 9. If your kids are not going to be checking any bags, you can check a booster seat as their checked bag -- but at $50 per bag roundtrip per above, you aren't saving much, if anything, and have to lug around a car seat as well. If you're traveling with a spouse, choose one of the rental car companies that lets you add him or her for free.
Other Car Expenses
Tolls and gas are two other niggling costs many of us forget about when planning a trip. These can vary widely depending on your route, what the local fuel costs and how large of a vehicle you're driving. We generally advise budgeting $5 - $10 per day in tolls if you're traveling in an area with many bridges and/or toll roads.
Cost per trip: Let's estimate $30 for tolls and $100 for gas.
How to beat these fees: E-ZPass and other pass holders sometimes get a discount on tolls; bring your own so you don't have to pay for one from the rental car company, which can cost extra. To cut gas costs, rent an economy-sized vehicle that gets better mileage.
Need Cash? Be Ready to Lose Some Cash
So once you're on the ground and you've spent the contents of your wallet once through, you need some cash; get ready to get dinged.
If you use an ATM from your own bank, these transactions are typically free, but it is rare to travel any distance and not have to use an outside bank or ATM at some point. Fees typically range from $2 - $5 per transaction, and often you get hit with this twice -- once by the bank that owns the machine, and once by your own bank.
And that is when using a bank ATM; if you are forced to use a privately owned ATM, such as in a convenience store, fees can be even higher. Overseas, these fees can truly skyrocket, with some banks taking a certain percentage on top of your withdrawal amount.
Cost per trip: We'll call it $10.
How to beat these fees: Before your trip -- or at least before you run out of money -- do searches on your bank's branch and ATM locator applications, whether on the bank website, bank-created smartphone apps or even just the mapping application on your phone. If your trip is lengthy, consider taking out larger amounts at a time so you're not paying repeated fees.
Resort Fees and Tipping
Independent travelers don't always run into resort fees, but they are worth mentioning, as these fees are a classic case of unannounced but mandatory fees you will encounter while traveling.
Resort (sometimes called facility) fees are an odd, additional mandatory fee usually added at check-in at many resorts and hotels. These are legendary at places like Las Vegas; this chart outlines some of the things these supposedly cover.
Cost per trip: $10 - $25 per room per night. For a four day trip: $40 - $100.
How to beat these fees: The only way to do it is to book away from properties that pile on the fees at check-in.
So what's the final bill? See the results for our four-day trip below:
Checked bag: $50
Additional airline fees: $25
Indirect TSA traveler privation fee: $20
Rental car miscellaneous: $25
Internet access: $50
Hotel parking: $25
ATM fees: $10
Resort fees: $50
If you multiply the first total by the number of people and then add the per-trip total, you get $745 in extra fees for a family of four on a four-day vacation -- even before you start paying for meals, cabs, shows, attractions, souvenirs, gifts or all the things that happen on almost every trip, but for which we almost never truly budget.
For help remembering some of the little things, folks can use our Travel Budget Calculator. Good luck beating the fees!