Junk fees and other obstacles of the road

Anna Lurye/Shutterstock
Anna Lurye/Shutterstock
At the intersection of Highway 20 and Highway 101 in Willits, Calif., you’ll find three service stations. But look closely before you pump gas, otherwise you could pay a lot more than you expect.

What follows is a cautionary tale about junk fees, from an industry that journalists like me tend to ignore, unless it’s spilling hundreds of millions of gallons of unprocessed petroleum into the Gulf of Mexico.

But the cost of a product, both perceived and real, are very much in the news today, with a key part of the Affordable Care Act scheduled to kick in Oct. 1. Fees are a hot topic in my neck of the woods, with some industry apologists spinning the absurd argument that junk fees such as the ones I ran into are good for consumers, because it gives them choices.
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Sick restaurant surcharges you shouldn’t have to pay — or should you?

Ward Chartier almost choked on his breakfast croissant he ordered at Oakland International Airport recently.

The reason for his consternation: an item on the bill that he thought he recognized, but hoped he didn’t.

It said, “EmpBen_Srchg” and it came to 12 cents, or about 2 percent of his bill.

“I interpret this to be employee benefit surcharge,” says Chartier, a consultant who lives in San Ramon, Calif. He asked me if I knew anything about the mysterious fee.

I didn’t, so I asked Oakland Airport.
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Guests who want it all and the hotels that pander to them

From time to time, I get an email from one of you that makes me want to say, “That’s ridiculous!”

The one I received from a guest at a budget motel in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., was one of them. Problem is, I can’t figure out who is being more ridiculous — the hotel or the guest.

As this column makes its curtain call, I’ve critiqued air travelers, car renters and cruise passengers. But this week it’s time to talk about hotel guests.

Specifically, the person booking the room at the bargain hotel in South Florida. In addition to expecting all the creature comforts of an American hotel, and getting the benefit of a super-low rate, they were upset when they found a $4.50 per night “hotel shuttle/parking service fee.”
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The mystery of Oyster Bay’s energy fee deepens

You wouldn't believe our utility bills! / Photo by Candi Berger - Flickr
Last month, I reported on the possible re-emergence of energy fees in the hotel industry. Today, I have some good news for you — and an update from the hotel that allegedly charged the fee to one guest.
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Are energy fees about to make a comeback?

Do you have the power? / Photo by ykanazawa1999 - Flickr
The Oyster Bay Beach Resort is a highrise hotel in St. Martin that promises guests white sand beaches, “breathtaking” views of the Caribbean and a “paradise found.”

But Jack Permadi says he found more than that when he stayed at the property recently. Permadi, who had traveled to the island from North Royalton, Ohio, for vacation, says the hotel asked him to pay extra for something that’s normally included in the price of a stay.
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Can this trip be saved? Overcharged for her Air Malta baggage

When Linda Krasowski’s daughter Caitlin landed in London on her way to Malta, she was greeted with an unexpected fee. An Air Malta representative asked her to pay $250 because one of her checked bags was 10 pounds over the limit.

“That was more than her ticket from London to Malta,” she says.

Absurd? You bet. But Air Malta’s luggage requirements are clearly disclosed.

Caitlin wasn’t alone, fortunately. She happened to be on a school trip that had been arranged by a travel agent. Her mother was confident this could all be worked out once she came home.
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The Travel Troubleshooter: Two extra kids equals a 200-euro surcharge?

Question: I need your help to resolve a situation that I encountered recently when my family and I stayed at the Brussels Marriott.

I generally book directly on the hotel’s website. So in this case, I went to and entered the number of guests — my wife, two young children, and me.

My reservation was for three nights. When we tried to check in, the clerk said that the room had a king bed and could not accommodate us. I mentioned that my kids are quite young and can easily share the bed, as we do this often when staying at Marriott properties in the United States.

I was told that the only option I had was to upgrade to a larger suite, pay for an additional room, or walk away. I asked for the manager, who told me the same thing.

I pointed out that there was no way I could stay in two separate rooms, as I would be separated from my family. I also pointed out that I have a child who is autistic, who cannot be separated from us, but they firmly held their ground. They said that the only thing they could do was to upgrade me to a suite for an additional cost of 300 Euros.

Eventually, the hotel agreed to lower its surcharge to 200 Euros for a three-night stay.

We had a miserable time in Brussels and had to cut short our sightseeing activities to somehow compensate for this extra expense. In short, they ruined my vacation. Can you please help us? — Hari Doraisamy, Newtown Square, Pa.

Answer: The hotel shouldn’t have forced you to upgrade. I reviewed your correspondence, and it appears that you did almost everything you could to alert Marriott that you were traveling with your family. Something may have gotten lost in the translation.
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Ridiculous or not? Airlines fall in love with fuel surcharges all over again

When Sylvia Dawson tried to book airline tickets from New York to London for a group traveling next month, she was taken aback by the fare.

“We were told by Virgin Atlantic that there would be a fuel surcharge of $98 per person,” she says.

Dawson isn’t a novice who would be shocked by news like that. She’s a travel agent who specializes in tours to England, and books a lot of flights over the pond. The reservation was for a group of 20 clients headed to the U.K. on a tour.

“We know that the price of oil has skyrocketed,” she says. “But this group has been booked with Virgin since the beginning of the year. It seems that the increase is somewhat over the top.”

Worse, her group couldn’t pull out of the trip without incurring heavy penalties. The airline had them over a barrel, figuratively speaking. Either they would pay 14 percent more for the price of their tickets or lose their vacations.

Fuel surcharges are a peculiar thing. On domestic flights, the price of fuel must be included in the base fare quoted to passengers. But international flights aren’t regulated the same way, and an airline can quote a low base fare but then add a “fuel surcharge” later.

Is Virgin Atlantic out of line?
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The Travel Troubleshooter: An unmarried driver fee? How enterprising

Question: A couple of weeks ago, my family and I took a trip to Hilton Head Island. We booked a rental car with Enterprise and the fine print in the contract said there would be an additional charge of $5 a day for “each additional authorized driver other than a spouse or domestic partner.”

I checked this language specifically, because my partner and I are partners, not spouses. We live in Canada (though we’re US citizens) and are “common-law spouses” (a domestic partnership category) under Canadian law.

When we arrived to pick up the car at the Savannah, Ga., airport, we were told we had to pay the extra fee because we were not married. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the document with the above language printed out, so I had to choose between signing the paperwork at the counter or finding a car from another agency.

Naturally, I chose to sign the paperwork; I had already waited in line for nearly half an hour, and I would almost certainly have had to pay a substantially higher rate as a last-minute walk-up at another agency.

When we got to Hilton Head, I looked up the information in my email, called Enterprise’s customer service line, and explained the situation. The gentleman with whom I spoke initially told me that “of course” we wouldn’t have to pay the extra fee if we were domestic partners. He then put me on hold to call the Savannah airport counter.

When he came back on, he told me that he had been wrong: the domestic partner exclusion applied only to same-sex domestic partners, not opposite-sex domestic partners.
I explained that the contract they sent to me did not specify “same-sex domestic partners.” It merely said “domestic partners.”

He agreed with me that we should not have to pay the fee, in his opinion, but said there was nothing he could do because that was company policy. He suggested that I register a formal complaint; I did so, but no one has gotten back to me. — Stacey Koprince, Montreal

Answer: If your contract promised domestic partners didn’t have to pay a fee for an additional driver, then Enterprise shouldn’t have charged you an extra $5 a day.
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