What if I told you that your airline owed you money? What if I said it effectively overbills every American for tickets?
Tom Ungar and his wife spent $128 to fly from Venice, Italy, to Naples, which is a ridiculously low fare. But when their checked luggage tipped the scales at just over 20 kilos, their airline demanded an additional $152.
A luggage fee that exceeds your airfare? Welcome to the wacky world of a la carte fees — a world filled with consumer “benefits” that airline apologists believe you’ll love.
Ungar’s case is something of an extreme example. He was flying on easyJet, an airline known for its preposterous luggage policies. But ignore his cautionary tale at your own peril, because this is the world the Big Three legacy airlines aspire to, if we, their captive customers, would just let them.
Ungar’s misadventure began when he checked in for his flight in Venice recently. After placing their baggage on the scales, an easyJet employee informed the couple that their luggage was “a bit” overweight and pointed them to another representative. That person said their luggage was free to fly for an additional fee of $152.
Even though the Doubletree San Juan isn’t really a resort, it still charged Cheryl Nygaard an 18% per night resort fee on her recent visit to Puerto Rico.
Worse, the $15-a-night “service” charge, which covered her Internet connection, beach chairs and towels, an in-room DVD player, and water and pool amenities, was added to her bill at the end of her stay.
“I didn’t know about the fees until I checked out,” she says. Nygaard, a corporate trainer from Dallas, who had booked the room through her travel agent, asked if the charge could be waived. She was in San Juan on business and didn’t use the pool, beach chairs or DVD player.
“I was told ‘no,'” she says.
The intoxicating combination of junk fees and loyalty programs seems too powerful for even the most consumer-friendly airline to resist.
At least that’s what passengers like Peter DeForest are discovering when they try to change an award ticket.
He’d saved up enough frequent flier miles on Virgin America, an airline with a stellar reputation for taking care of its customers, to fly himself and a companion from San Francisco to Las Vegas. But shortly before the trip, his companion fell ill. He asked Virgin if he could cancel the trip and get his miles back.
Sure, a representative told him. If he paid the airline a $100 per reservation “redeposit fee.”
That’s the surprise fee Karin Melick-Barthelmess saw on her bill for an American Airlines flight from St. Louis to New York. It was listed as an “American Airlines Internet surcharge,” she says.
One dollar may not sound like a lot, but when American businesses in general — and travel companies in particular — build their entire ventures on fees like that, it is a big deal. (American raked in $266 million in ticket change fees and $255 million in baggage fees during the first half of 2013. It’s on track to collect more than $1 billion in fees for the year, with most of them coming in a few dollars at a time.)
Here’s my prediction for 2014: more nonsense fees.
After Eric Kodish finished making his reservation at the Sheraton Princess Kaiulani in Honolulu’s Waikiki Beach for the upcoming Christmas holiday, he tried to tie up one loose end: ensuring the two rooms he’d booked for his family were connected.
No problem, a hotel representative said. For an additional $50 a night per room, they’d be happy to guarantee adjoining accommodations.
“My kids are minors,” says Kodish, an accountant from Moorestown, N.J. “They can’t stay across the hall if a connecting room isn’t available.”
The price tag for staying next to his children, Tyler, 8, and Devon, 5? An additional $1,100.
Susan Jay regrets picking up the phone to make a call from Harrah’s Atlantic City. But she says she had no choice. Her cell phone wasn’t getting a clear signal.
When Jay checked out, she discovered three unexpected charges — one for $26 and two for $45.
Yep, you guessed it. Harrah’s charged her about $5 a minute for the phone calls, an unconscionable markup.
“After a heated discussion with the billing department, they removed the five-minute call for $26,” she says. But that left her with a $90 bill. And the casino wouldn’t budge.
“It’s not enough,” she says.