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There are several ways savvy travelers can avoid common charges that can quickly add up.
By James Wysong Travel columnist
updated 12/12/2006 6:58:53 PM ET 2006-12-12T23:58:53

Airline crews are experts at avoiding incidental charges. Some say we’re cheap; others say we are just frugal. Now that our paychecks and pensions have been slashed, economy is a necessity. Besides, why throw money away if you don’t have to? Here are 10 common nickel-and-dime travel charges, along with a few suggestions on how to avoid them.

Car rental insurance
You’re out of town and the agent asks you, “Would you like collision coverage for your rental?” Then, when you say no, the agent tries to scare you into second-guessing your choice. (Sometimes the cost of the insurance is as much as the car rental!) What you should know is that your own auto insurance probably covers that rental car, so before you head out on your next trip, give your insurance agent a call. Also, many credit cards extend insurance coverage if you use that credit card for the car rental. Many people think this coverage is bogus, but it’s not. Last winter a friend of mine returned from a day of skiing to find his rental car was the victim of a hit-and-run. His credit card company covered the entire expense.

Hotel parking
Think you got a sweet deal on that hotel? Think again. Many hotels charge as much as $20 a night for parking, which I think is a rip-off considering hotel prices are so high these days. So, before you confirm that reservation, ask if there is free parking for guests.

Next-day tickets
You learn at the last minute that you need to travel tomorrow for some important event. Airlines typically charge astronomical fares for next-day flights. They do this because they know you are desperate and that you will pay almost anything. Don’t pay those fares without first doing an Internet search, which can sometimes turn up some surprising last-minute specials. A friend of mine once needed a ticket for a flight to Los Angeles in less than four hours time. He found one on Lowestfare.com for $200 when the airline was trying to charge him $900.

Hidden fees
Have you ever checked your ticket invoice and counted up the hidden fees? There can be fees for airport construction, security, and airport access, not to mention excise and customs charges, gate taxes, country taxes, value-added taxes and even 9/11 charges. Personally, I am surprised not to find an Overpaid Airline Executive fee. There is no way to avoid paying these taxes and fees, but I understand they are all tax-deductible. If you travel enough, they can add up to quite a bit.

The useless upgrade (Part 1)
Some airlines are now charging extra for some aisle seats and window seats or for the roomier seats in economy. An agent will ask you at check-in if you are interested in paying a nominal fee for one of these seats. Before you take out your wallet, ask if the flight is oversold, because if it’s not, you may be paying for something you can have for free. Mind you, if your flight is full and more than two hours long, the extra cost might just be worth it.

The useless upgrade (Part 2)
How many times have you gone to a car rental agency and been offered a great deal on a fancier car? What the agent isn’t telling you is that they’ve run out of compact cars (like the one you booked), and they’re hoping to turn their little oops into a moneymaking opportunity. If you decline the “upgrade,” they have to give you the nicer car anyway, and you drive away happy. Also steer clear of the “pay-now-and-bring-the-car-back-empty” scam. Studies have shown that 9 times out of 10 you lose money with that deal. I purposely drove out of my way once just to empty the tank and ended up feeling like a fool.

H2O to go
The price of bottled water can be astronomically high at hotels, but when you get to your room you just don’t want to risk the tap water. So, just fill up your empty bottle at the hotel gym. While you’re at it, have a workout. Double bonus!

Mini-bar, maxi price
Have you ever been tempted by the offerings of the in-room mini-bar at the hotel, but scared straight when you saw the mini-bar prices? Go ahead and indulge, but be sure you replace the item from the local store at a tenth of the price.

Drink specials
I don’t care if it makes you look cheap, always ask about drink specials before ordering. I can’t count the number of times I’ve paid twice as much for a smaller drink when the larger one was on special. Also, if you drink only one brand of liquor — say, Jack Daniels — ask the server what the house bourbon is before you place your order. If it’s Jack Daniels, you can order a bourbon and coke and pay less than if you had specified Jack Daniels in the first place.

Sky-high Wi-Fi
Most airports and hotels charge for wireless Internet access, and it can cost up to $20 just to check your e-mail. But many hotel lobbies offer Wi-Fi for free. You can also go to Wi-FiFreeSpot.com to find free wireless anywhere in the country.

It’s good to treat yourself once in a while, but when you travel as much as I do, small items add up. By following some of these tips, you could save enough to splurge on that $10 overpriced airport coffee drink. But that’s another column altogether.

James Wysong has worked as a flight attendant with two major international carriers during the past fifteen years. He is the author of the "The Plane Truth: Shift Happens at 35,000 Feet" and "The Air Traveler's Survival Guide." For more information about James or his books, please visit his Web site or e-mail him.

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