Who has the worst fees in the travel industry? Here’s the surprise answer

By | March 24th, 2011

Will the industry with the worst fees please stand up and take a bow?

You’re looking at the airlines, over in the corner, aren’t you? Granted, they come off as a little shady and they’re constantly making news for some insane new surcharge, like paying extra for confirmed seat assignments or to carry a bag on the plane.

I polled readers of this column – I’ll get to the answers in a moment – but let me offer a clue: It’s not the airlines. They’re bad, but they’re apparently not the worst. They’re not even number two.

So who wins, then?

First, let me put the answer in a little context. The travel industry has a well-earned reputation for broadsiding its customers with fees (that was a hint, in case you were wondering) but it is by no means unique. I didn’t ask readers about wireless carriers or credit card companies, for example, which are legendary when it comes to extras.

Fees are everywhere. When I order flowers for my grandmother and ask for the $50 bouquet, I end up getting charged more than $70 because there are taxes, delivery fees and other miscellaneous charges.

But let’s stick to travel. Here, in reverse order, are the travel companies who have mastered the art of fees:

Travel agents. Asked where they would most expect to get a surprise fee, surcharge or bill from when they travel, just one percent of respondents pointed the finger at travel advisers. It’s important to distinguish between bricks-and-mortar travel agents, which charge booking fees, and online agents, which have done away with a lot of fees for competitive reasons.

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But make no mistake: Second-tier tier online travel agencies and the so-called “mom and pop” shops can hit you with fees just when you least expect it. I heard from one reader in Alaska who was charged an outrageous $100 booking fee for an airline ticket. The agent didn’t bother responding to my inquiry. In one extreme example a few years ago, an agent doubled the price of a traveler’s train tickets, calling it a commission.

Cruise lines. Only four percent of respondents tagged cruise ships as the worst surcharge offenders. Again, that may have more to do with the fact that a significant number of Americans haven’t cruised, and that cruise lines have always advertised their products as “all-inclusive” (even if they obviously aren’t). If more people cruised, maybe the percentage would be higher. That might not be a good thing, come to think of it.

Cruise fees are getting out of control. The moment you board a ship, you’re offered services for a fee, like drinks, photos, spa treatments and specialty restaurants. You can say “no” of course, but what kind of vacation would that be? The point is, a cruise is not all-inclusive. It’s semi-inclusive, at best. And what you don’t spend on optional extras you’ll dole out in tips to the underpaid staff.

Airlines. Sigh. A little less than a quarter of travelers picked air carriers. With good reason: So-called “ancillary” fees account for an every-increasing percentage of airline revenues. That’s surcharges for making a ticket change, getting a confirmed seat reservation and checking your first bag. Airlines sure do love their fees.

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