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Unexpected Fees: The True Cost of Travel

child carseat car seatRental 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. These taxes tend to get approved easily by local governments, as they don't come out of the pockets of locals, but rather of tourists to the area.

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 $7 per day to $65 per rental, 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 $7 - $25 more per day to add an additional driver (although 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 $7 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.

The First 10 Minutes of Your Car Rental

Latest Car Rental Option -- for a Fee, Of Course
A recent amenity available to car renters is a "toll payment service," which is essentially a temporary E-ZPass device that will allow you to go through automated toll booths and avoid the cash lanes. This sounds like a nice convenience, but is typically billed per day, not per use -- so if there is a day that you don't drive through any tolls, you pay up anyway. Here are some prices:

- Budget: $2.95 per day + tolls
- Hertz: $4.95 per day + tolls
- Avis: $2.95 per day + tolls
- Enterprise: $2.50 - $3.50 per day + tolls

In the past, I have advised folks to bring their own E-ZPass device when traveling to areas that share the same system; you can save yourself the money that way. But let's say you like this option from the rental car company; that makes for another $12 during your four-day trip.

About that "+ tolls": getting over the George Washington Bridge into New York City now costs $8.25 - $10.25 (non-peak/peak) with an E-ZPass, and crossing the entire length of the Pennsylvania Turnpike will set you back nearly $31 ($39 if you pay cash). While these are unusually expensive, it makes sense to budget at least $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 agree on $30.

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.

Need Cash? Be Ready to Lose Some Cash
atm bank machineSo 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 at two major banks, Bank of America and PNC, 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. So it can be $4 - $10 every time you need cash.

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.

ATM's Abroad

(As an aside, a common scam at restaurants and shops that have private ATM's is to say that the credit card machine is broken, thus forcing you to use their machine, from which they get a commission or payment.)

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 Web site, bank-created smartphone apps or even just the mapping application on your phone.

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.

Poll: How Do You Avoid Baggage Fees?

Final Tally
Finally, let's tally these up; some of the prices we averaged, some we estimated, but overall I think we are on track. See the results for our four-day trip below:

Per-Person Fees
Checked bag: $50
Additional airline fees: $25
Indirect TSA traveler privation fee: $20
Rental car miscellaneous: $25
Total: $120

Per-Trip Fees
Toll payment services: $12
Tolls: $30
Internet access: $50
Hotel parking: $25
ATM fees: $10
Resort fees: $50
Total: $177

If you multiply the first total by the number of people and then add the per-trip total, you get $657 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!

Go Anyway,
Ed Hewitt
Features Editor


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