Posted: 9:00 a.m. Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2013
By Terry Ward
Even the most careful trip planners can get blindsided by these surprise expenses. Learn the most common budget-busting fees before they bite you in the, um, wallet.
Some travel surprises are good: discovering a hidden gem of a trattoria in Florence where you are greeted with hugs and an open bottle of Chianti. Or finding out that the Louvre is free the one day you are in Paris. But then there are the bad surprises: getting the final bill on your cruise and seeing hundreds of dollars tacked on for gratuities. Or showing up at the airport at the end of a blissful week in the Caribbean and being informed you must pay a departure tax, or you can't leave the island (on second thought, being stuck in paradise doesn't sound that terrible). Here are seven fees you should factor into the budget—including a few you can avoid altogether if you're smart.
Visas are required for U.S. citizens traveling to some major countries, and the fees can really escalate. Planning on taking that once-in-a-lifetime trip to China? Budget another $140 per person for a visa. A visa to visit India costs $76 (including a service fee), while a visa for Russia costs $170. Countries like Brazil charge American citizens the same amount that our government charges their citizens to visit the U.S.—a hefty $160. Go to the consulate's website to find out how much you are going to have to shell out. It can take a couple weeks to process visas, so be sure to plan ahead or you'll end up paying even more to expedite.
Have you ever looked at the breakdown of the cost of an airline ticket? Mixed in with the Passenger Facility Charge and the Segment Tax is usually a departure tax for international flights. Many countries charge one, though its not always included in your airfare. If that is the case, you'll be hit up with an exit fee at the airport on your way back to the U.S. This is especially common in the Caribbean and Central and South America. The departure tax for St. Kitts is $37 per person, while the departure tax from St. Maarten is $30 per person. To leave Costa Rica you will owe $28. The fee is usually payable in cash or by credit card and must be paid before proceeding through immigration for your exit stamp. Airport websites often have information about exit fees and you can always call your airline to inquire about the departure tax, too. In case you were wondering, these fees are sometimes levied to cover things like airport construction, road work, and water and sewage system maintenance.
This fee is probably the most hated among travelers, especially since it covers things you probably assumed were free—pool towels, daily newspaper, and even in-room coffee. Hawaiian resorts are notorious for charging extra fees (though there are a few that do not, including theKona Beach Hotel). The Hyatt Regency Maui Resort & Spa charges $25 per room, per night to cover wireless Internet access, daily local newspaper, and an hour on the tennis courts. The fee can also show up as a percentage added to your room rate, not a flat fee. This is typical in Puerto Rico, where resorts like the Conrad San Juan Condado Plaza add 16 percent to the bill to cover WiFi, local calls, and access to the resort's casino. It's not just beach resorts that tack on the fee: the Bellagio on the Las Vegas strip adds $22.40 to the room rate per night for internet, gym access, and local calls. And these charges are non-negotiable, even if you aren't planning on logging on or working out. Be sure to read the fine print, where resort fees are often tucked away, especially when using a third-party booking site. If you're still not clear on the matter, a simple call to the hotel can determine whether it's a good deal or if considering a resort that's a few dollars more (but with no resort fees) is a better option.
Those amazing cruise deals are so tempting, especially for all-inclusive boats where your meals are included in the price. Even if you have prepaid, you will still get a bill before you reach the final port detailing the incidental charges you racked up while you were gliding through the Caribbean. You might be surprised to see just how many piña coladas you ordered by the pool—and that you owe more than $150 for gratuities. Most major cruise lines automatically bill cruisers between $10 and $12 in gratuities for each day of the cruise. Carnival charges $11.50 per day, per person (over the age of 2) for tips to be distributed to the ship's staff. Disney Cruise Lines adds $12 per person, per night for the stateroom host and the dining room wait staff. And these set fees do not include the 15 percent automatically added to your bar tab. Though the charge seems mandatory, if you feel the tip doesn't reflect the service you've received, you can adjust the rate up or down by making a trip to the purser's office to discuss the matter in person.
There is a dizzying amount of variation when it comes to which airlines charge what for checked bags, excess luggage, and even carry-on bags. Spirit Airlines famously charges $30 per carryon bag (it's $45 if you wait until you reach the gate to pay the fee, and is said to be going up to a staggering $100 in November 2012), while your first checked bag is free on Jet Blue and each passenger gets to check two bags free with Southwest. Delta doesn't charge for the first checked bag to most international destinations, but that exact same bag will cost you another $25 if your flight is staying within the U.S. or Canada. The rules are always changing, and it's hard to keep up (Airfarewatchdog.com has a comprehensive and continuously updated chart). It's well worth researching airline baggage policies before you even book. That $50 difference between fares can disappear quickly if you have to pay $70 to check two bags.
Setting off to explore an off-the-beaten-path beach or a tiny village that's large on charm is all part of the adventure. The mom-and-pop restaurants and shops that line main street are a nice change from the chain stores that every city seems to have, but don't count on them taking credit cards-or the presence of an ATM. It's worth those few minutes on your way out of town to stop at a major ATM (which offer the best exchange rate) before you head out for the day. If you don't, you'll be hit with much higher fees at a foreign exchange bureau—or let the shopkeeper determine how many USD that souvenir is worth.
Finding a great price on a flight directly from, say, British Airways or Air France is fantastic. But be aware that just because the price is in USD doesn't mean you won't be charged a foreign transaction fee by your credit card company. The airline is still an overseas business. There are ways around the fee, though. One is to use a credit card that doesn't charge for international transactions (Capital One is one). Or find a U.S. airline partner of the airline you want to book with. For example, if you're looking into flights to Germany and find a deal with Lufthansa, book through their partner United's website instead to avoid foreign transaction fees showing up as part of your charge. Not sure if the airline has a U.S. connection? Airline partners are listed on the company's website, or check to see if they are part of the larger networks (such as the Star Alliance, which includes Lufthansa and United as well as South African Airways and Air New Zealand).