Annoying travel fees -- and how to avoid them

Jennifer Coogan, Travel + LeisureUpdated 24th September 2013
Editor's Note — CNN and Travel + Leisure are partnering to find 100 ways to travel better. The final list will be revealed in November. In the meantime, check out these tips for keeping money in your pockets.
(CNN) — Whether it's a $20 daily charge for a resort gym you didn't use, or the new $200 penalty for altering your flight reservation, travel fees have an irritating way of surprising us on vacation.
It should be easier than ever to shop based on price given the explosion of online booking sites -- at least in theory. That cheap rate on the screen rarely includes all fees. Without the help of a knowledgeable travel agent or a resource like NerdWallet that compares fees for a given airline route, it's challenging to calculate your total cost.
Hotels, cruises and especially airlines like this model because fees have allowed them to stay profitable while slashing their base prices to appear competitive. But it leaves travelers frustrated by charges for things like an in-flight soda that, until recently, we expected to be free.
The upside to consider is that you can still avoid some of the worst penalties if you plan strategically. Read on for tips in dealing with the latest annoying travel fees.
Baggage Fees
Major carriers charge $25 to check one bag on domestic flights -- and raked in $3.5 billion in baggage fees in 2012, up nearly 4% from the previous year, according to the Department of Transportation. Many travelers have responded by packing just light enough to squeeze their bags into an overhead bin. But even that option may be waning. Low-cost carriers Spirit and Allegiant both charge for carry-on luggage and Frontier Airlines announced it will charge $25-$100 for the use of the overhead bin to passengers who book economy fares through online agencies or travel agents.
Tip: Bags still fly free on Southwest, and JetBlue passengers may check their first bag at no expense. The Citi AAdvantage MasterCard and Visa offer a first bag checked free for the cardholder and four companions; the Delta SkyMiles card from American Express (the parent company of Travel + Leisure) grants a one bag checked free for up to nine people on the same reservation.
Ticket Change Fee
Change fee revenue totaled $2.6 billion last year, up more than 7%. Major legacy carriers including American recently hiked their change fees from $150 to $200 -- and that's just for domestic flights. Rearranging an international itinerary can incur a $300 charge on US Airways -- an eye-popping amount that has caught the attention of Senator Charles Schumer, who is calling on airlines to reverse the hike.
Tip: If your plans look tentative, shop around for all fare classes; some more expensive base fares will have more flexibility should you need to make an adjustment. Southwest is still free of change fees.
Resort Fee
It's an unpleasant surprise to learn at check-in that you're required to pay a $20-$30 daily surcharge to cover the cost of amenities (newspaper delivery; fitness center access) that you may not use. Since these fees don't figure into the advertised room rate, they make it hard for a price-sensitive traveler to find the best lodging option. And it's not just travelers who are annoyed; the Federal Trade Commission warned 22 hotel operators that not clearly disclosing resort fees could be violating FTC laws.
Tip: Call and ask the front desk directly if there is a resort fee before you book -- especially if you're doing so through a third party such as an online travel agent or daily deal site.
Car Rental Airport Fee
For the traveler who wants to get straight out onto the open road, the airport surcharge is deflating. The amount varies depending on the company and airport, but the difference can be steep. For example, renting a full-size vehicle at Denver International Airport can cost nearly twice the daily rate for the same car picked up from the convention center downtown.
Phone or In-Person Booking Fee
Major carriers now all charge $25 to book a reservation by phone and even more to do so in person with a reservation agent. Spirit charges $10 for a desk agent to print a passenger's boarding pass. Unlike baggage and change fees, these types of charges are less about making money for the airline. "They're about modifying consumer behavior," says Jay Sorensen, an airline industry consultant. The more that passengers make use of technology like self-service check-ins and booking apps with scanner-readable codes, the more the airlines save in staff and overhead.
Tip: If you want a human touch, avoid airline staff and turn instead to a travel agent. While you pay a fee for their services, the assistance goes far beyond booking your tickets. A good agent will be able to reschedule your flights in case of a cancellation and may be able to get you negotiated rates on your accommodations.
Seat Selection and Priority Boarding
Cutting capacity has had a twofold benefit for the airlines: not only have they been able to raise fares, but flights are now so crowded that passengers are compelled to dip into their pockets and pay for whatever they can to make the experience more bearable. Fees range widely across carriers for seat selection and priority boarding privileges and may begin to shift within a given airline as companies learn to take advantage of scarcity with more dynamic pricing. For instance, airlines might offer priority boarding at a higher rate on a Monday morning when the security line is backed up, versus a quiet Saturday evening.
Tip: American Airlines announced in May 2013 it will grant Group 2 boarding for free to passengers who bring only a carry-on item small enough to fit under the seat. So when possible, leave that roller bag behind. Consult to select the best available seat.
Single Supplement
Solo travelers pay a price for their independent streak on the high seas or guided tours. The single supplement can be as high as 100% on certain cruises and tour itineraries and a minimum of 25% on the low end. Lately, however, changing demographics and travel habits have convinced some tour operators and cruise lines that there could be profit in accommodating single travelers with package prices closer to those paid for double occupancy.
Tip: Royal Caribbean's new "Quantum of the Seas" is being designed with solo travelers in mind. It will feature 16 studio staterooms with no dreaded supplement. Luxury outfitter Abercrombie & Kent's "Solo Savings" departures either waive the single supplement or reduce it by as much as 75% on popular itineraries including African safaris. Other companies offer guests the option to be paired with another single traveler to avoid paying the single supplement, such as Cosmos's "guaranteed share" program.
In-Flight Amenity Fees
Complimentary coach-class meals on domestic hauls are now a faint memory for U.S. travelers. At least a free can of soda can be counted on -- or so we thought. In July, fee-friendly Frontier started charging $1.99 for soft drinks, juice, coffee and tea for passengers booked on lower-tier fares. Not even water is sacred to Spirit Airlines, which charges $3 for a bottle. Pillows and blankets have been removed from many domestic flights; other airlines name a price ($7 on U.S. Airways; $4.99-$5.99 on JetBlue). Airlines have long charged for headsets, and now some make you pay for the entertainment too. JetBlue's pay-per-view, for instance, offers movies at $5.99.
Tip: Some co-branded airline credit cards provide discounts; Citi's AAdvantage MasterCard entitles cardholders 25% off in-flight purchases. But it's easy to avoid these fees by boarding with your own fleece or blanket, snacks and earbuds.
As we become ever more dependent on connectivity, hotel Wi-Fi is the fee we're most irritated by and yet perhaps most likely to grudgingly pay. Chains like Holiday Inn and Hampton Inn provide free Wi-Fi, yet paradoxically, many higher-end hotels and resorts continue to charge for in-room Internet, sometimes with two-tier pricing for high and regular-speed connections. A report by found that Wi-Fi fees range from $9.95 to $14.95 per day, but can be as high as $19.95.
Tip: Be loyal; Fairmont, Kimpton and Omni hotels give free Wi-Fi as a benefit when you sign up for their free rewards programs. Peninsula and Shangri-La Hotels have free Wi-Fi not only in all hotel rooms and common areas but also in their automobile fleets.
One-Way Penalty and Airport Surcharge on Car Rentals
A four-day drive up California's Pacific Coast Highway is a lovely way to spend your vacation. What's less enticing is the hefty premium you pay to drop off your vehicle at a different destination from the point of origin. A recent online search found a four-day rental from Los Angeles to San Francisco that cost $379 extra, compared with the rate you'd pay to return the vehicle in L.A.
Tip: Shop around for your rental, using "one-way" as a search term. The major chains occasionally offer discount codes and coupons specifically for one-way rentals. Avis puts one-way rentals out of Arizona and Florida on sale in the spring to attract business from retirees who are headed back north for the summer.
Award Ticket Fees
After you've spent years building up a mileage balance for a free seat to Europe, it can come as a shock to be charged an award-processing fee. Add to that airport taxes, fuel surcharges and security taxes and the final total on a so-called "free flight" can easily reach three figures. Any kind of change also incurs fees in most frequent-flier programs ($75-$150 on major carriers). And canceling your "free" ticket will cost you if you want to get the miles re-deposited into your account ($150 on major carriers).
Tip: Plan ahead when booking award travel to minimize fees (some airlines charge a $75 rush fee on award seats booked fewer than 21 days before departure). The further out you book, the easier it will be to use the airlines' online award booking option, saving you from paying for help from a reservation agent.