You deserve a refund for those junk fees

Diego Cervo/Shutterstock
Diego Cervo/Shutterstock
What if they had to give it all back?

Imagine if someone forced airlines, hotels and car rental companies to return every penny they took from you under questionable circumstances. The checked-bag fee, often poorly disclosed. The resort fee billed to your room, whether you used the “free” wireless and unlimited local phone calls or not. The license recovery fees that pay for your rental car’s plates — as if that were optional.

These extras, which most travelers call junk fees, aren’t just expensive annoyances. Vast sectors of the travel industry have made them a cornerstone of their business operations, with airlines leading the way down this ethically troublesome path.

It’s a practice the industry delicately calls “unbundling,” or removing often essential components of a product from the base price to make it look deceptively cheaper.

What if someone — a court or the government — required the travel industry to disgorge itself of all those ill-gotten gains, returning the money they sometimes improperly collected from you?

Travelers say they would love it, but parts of the travel industry might grind to a halt. Yes, that’s how dependent they’ve become on these often dishonest fees.

Becca Tabbutt says one airline broadsided her family with an additional $20-a-person fee for confirmed seats recently when they were flying from Philadelphia to Orlando. Many airlines charge for “premium” coach seats toward the front of the cabin or for exit-row seats, which offer additional leg room. In order to sit next to her kids, ages 4 and 1, Tabbutt, a stay-at-home mom from Parkesburg, Pa., forked over the extra money.

“But I inwardly seethed,” she adds.

When her family boarded the plane, she discovered it wasn’t full, and they could have easily sat together without paying extra.

“We felt even more duped,” she says. “We were led to believe that we had to pay to guarantee seats together.”

Tabbutt’s husband asked for an $80 refund, to no avail.

Industry apologists claim these fees are good because they’re optional, they lower the cost of travel for everyone else, and they ensure the industry’s profitability. That’s nonsense. Tell Tabbutt that sitting next to her toddler was “optional.” Only the savviest customers pay less, because they’ve figured out the system. Others unwillingly shell out more than they’ve budgeted, which directly translates into healthy profits.

Industry cheerleaders are right about only one thing: If it weren’t for these surcharges, many companies would simply not exist. Remove the $27.1 billion that the airline industry raked in last year from all the extras it sold us, for example, and you’d drain away its profits. No one really knows how dependent other parts of the travel business have grown on fees, since they’re not subject to the same reporting requirements.

What if someone like Tabbutt found a really good lawyer and sued her airline? To find out, I asked Tali Segal, another air traveler who has had to pay extra to sit next to her kids on a plane. She’s also a lawyer, and says proving fees are unethical wouldn’t be easy.

“When and if the fees are unfair and deceptive, the travel industry should not be gaining from this practice, and consumers should be refunded,” she says.

Other legal experts agree. Stephen Barth, a hotel industry attorney who runs the website, says that for a class-action lawsuit against a large hotel company to succeed, travelers would have to demonstrate a material omission — in other words, failing to inform visitors of a resort fee, or that the marketing information provided was deceptive — to get a judgment in their favor.

Even if they do, he adds, “the damages can be quite small for an individual.” If you spent $25 a night for a fee that covered the use of a pool or exercise room, odds are you’d never secure a full refund.

It would be a long, difficult road, according to Thomas Dickerson, author of Travel Law. Airlines are regulated by the federal government, and any court challenge to such fees may be pre-empted by the rulings of the Federal Aviation Administration. Unhappy about fees on cruise ships? A court challenge may be governed by U.S. maritime law, which could pre-empt state consumer protection laws.

While a refund en masse is probably out of the question, you can still fight these junk fees on a case-by-case basis — and win. When Darryl Musick, an information technology specialist from Los Angeles, was hit with an unexpected $18-a-night resort fee at the Pointe Hilton Squaw Peak Resort near Phoenix, he demanded to know why.

“They said it was for unlimited bottled water and local calls,” he remembers. “When I said I had my own phone and am happy to drink from the tap, they asked me to initial that I was refusing that service.”

Smarter travel executives must already know they’ve made a huge mistake by building their businesses on junk fees. They know their rhetoric rings hollow with the average customer, and they must know that at some point, they’ll be called to account for forcing their customers to pay extra for everything.

That day can’t come soon enough.

Do travelers deserve a refund for junk fees they had to pay?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • Justin

    “Favorite” Junk Fees:

    1) Hotel safe fee. Are we living in 1800? – I ask for removal of fee

    2) 3% credit card foreign transaction fee – money grab – I’ve paid :( but try to find a card that won’t charge and lacks an annual fee?

    Any suggestions?

    3) Print boarding pass – Easily avoided but I suspect the elderly, non tech savvy, or infrequent flyer are targeted. Less likely to hit seasoned travelers understanding online pre check in procedures.

    4). Check baggage – pack light and take a carry on. My motto.

  • Thetine

    Re #2: Capital One has multiple cards with no foreign transaction fee and no annual fee. Peruse their website for the card that is best for you.

    Re# 3: Why can’t they charge a reduced fare for checking in online instead of PUNISHING people who check in at the airport. That paper boarding pass is not that expensive to print!

  • omgstfualready

    So another parent is upset they paid for the peace of mind that should the plane be filled they are guaranteed to sit with their offspring. How about anyone paying for early boarding on southwest then seeing the flight was not too full? I am a carry on flyer and still pay the fee so I’m covered to have overhead space regardless. So why whine????

    And people need to plan their budget better rather than keep complaining the world isn’t fitting into their reality . Those same people likely bought a house or car they couldn’t afford either because they focused on the payment per month and not the overall cost.

    Consumers, be responsible for yourselves. Try it, it’s quite empowering .

    And yes, I just flew yesterday and had my fill of sweatpants and shoeless and rude.

  • omgstfualready


  • Bill___A

    To me, there is a big difference between fees that are optional, and for things that you buy, such as seat reservations, baggage, etc. and resort fees. Resort fees are a forced cash grab that isn’t optional. Although I don’t like any of the fees really, I think the distinction should be made, and fees such as resort fees should be made very illegal. I certainly try to not stay at any place which charges a resort fee, and so far I haven’t been dinged, but would like them outlawed. It is particularly obnoxious when, for example, at a place like Gaylord Hotels, where elites are entitled to free internet, they insist upon the fee.

  • Justin


    Thanks on cc tip. Ill remember the advice next travels.

    Agreed but using an agent and paper are costly. Why not just automate check in since companies have us believe use of customer service is a novelty today

  • jim6555

    Spirit Airlines charges $5 to print a boarding pass from a computer terminal. No human interaction required.

  • jim6555

    Most people who pay for early boarding on Southwest do so when they purchase their ticket. Since Southwest does not charge for changing flights (other than the difference in fares, if any) both the passenger and the airline don’t know for sure whether the aircraft will be full or half empty.

  • omgstfualready

    But you can buy it at anytime and you are paying, as optional, for a better boarding position to ensure you are with the people with whom you wish to sit, or in my case the assurance the overheadspace is available for my carry on. It isn’t junk. It is a risk versus reward. I pay to reduce my risk. When the plane isn’t at capacity my gamble went against me, when it is full it paid off. In no way is a refund in order.

  • MarkKelling

    #2 Chase has several travel industry co branded cards that don’t charge the 3% but do have annual fees. Bank of America has their Travel Rewards card with no annual fee and no 3% fee. The “no international fee” wave is spreading, thanks to customers demanding it.

  • MarkKelling

    So a fee was paid to “guarantee” they all sat together. If the fee would not have ben paid, then there was no guarantee. The only reason for a refund of this fee would have been if they did not end up sitting together. Also, some airlines are very insistent that unless you pay the fee to sit in a “better” seat you cannot move to it during the flight.

  • davidglass

    I have seen numerous instances where flight attendants get on the PA system to beg other passengers to switch seats so a parent can sit next to their 3 year old. Sad that it falls to flight attendants to sort out the messy details in the minutes before departure. Very unfair also to the stranger who has to sit next to a screaming 3 year old who was forced to sit separately from their parent.

  • omgstfualready

    Very unfair indeed, the parent who assumes others will fix their self made problems. I’m often approached to move and no longer agree to do so.

  • Justin

    Cheap. Ryanair (Europe) charges 15 Euros or around $20.00 to print a pass.

    Paper’s expensive….

  • Justin

    Good to hear people are fighting back. Using cash isn’t preferred due to currency exchange and the risk of losing money. Most places take credit cards.

  • davidglass

    or the greedy airline who is trying to extract an extra $30 from the parent for a “premium” aisle or window seat under those circumstances. Maybe the parent can barely afford the airfare + exorbitant baggage fees and can’t fork over any more to sit next to their child. More the airlines fault for being so inflexible rather than the parent.

    So STFU, omgstfualready.

  • Extramail

    You have to offset the $27 billion against what would certainly be higher fares the airlines would have charged if they weren’t charging the bundled fees. People, especially business travelers, are going to fly and “bundling” the fees back up won’t stop that. I’d much rather pay more for a flight than have to deal with the hassle of all the folks who are dragging their “carry-ons” on board and the cattle call to board that goes with that. But, then, I try to drive as much as possible because I hate the TSA screening hassle, which happens before anybody even steps on an airplane.

  • Extramail

    I wish I had a toddler to travel with on an airplane. I think it would be funny to board a plane, seat the toddler and then walk off to my seat and watch the flight attendants and the toddlers’ seatmate reaction to the situation. If enough parents did that, the airlines would change that policy pronto.

  • Cat

    LOL, if you had a really confident toddler who would not be upset- I say go for it!

  • Cat

    That is not true. The airlines, in spite of their cries of poverty, are making billions each year. All these fees, restrictions, and punitive costs are are not needed for the running of the company. But the ridiculous charges ARE making the relatively few at the top obscenely wealthy
    There is no reason for them to shake down passengers for every freaking penny they can screw them out of. Its like going to the Mafia for your travel needs. Actually, mafia members might be more pleasant than many airline employees.

  • omgstfualready

    And the poor breeders, having no choice but to continue to live beyond their means and take no personal responsibility, the fee is the cost of travel. If people can no longer afford to pay it, travel decreases, fare structures change. Supply and demand, not whine and complain. My apologies to the moderator for this nonsense.

  • Daddydo

    Yes we deserve the refunds, no we will never see them. There is still a choice to be made by the traveler, but they are too afraid to go for it. I want to stay at the Marriott Waikiki, $25.00 per night resort fee, but the Outriggers have none. $?.?? for an international transaction fee, then use Capitol 1 with none. Baggage fees – USAir charges $25.00, changing on Southwest is free. Becca paid for seats in order to sit togeater. Did she need all 4 seats together, or was she offered alternatives. I have never heard of 1 single airline separating a chaild and parent. There are thousands of choises to not pay fees.. Become informed and quit your complaining!