Image: The trays are extra with room service?
Eising  /  Getty Images
The most outrageous surcharges excel in their absurdity. Watch out for the 'tray fee' when ordering room service.
By Christopher Elliott Travel columnist
Tribune Media Services
updated 10/29/2007 10:33:32 AM ET 2007-10-29T14:33:32

When Henry Harteveldt looks to the future of travel, he sees fees. Lots of fees.

Take airline tickets, for example.

“The airlines are up in arms about the fees being charged by the credit card issuers and bank processors,” says Harteveldt, who, as an analyst for Forrester Research, gets paid to think about these things.

“In Europe, airlines levy surcharges for credit card purchases, a business practice not allowed here — for now,” he adds. “I firmly believe that the airlines will do everything they can to allow credit card payment surcharges or fees to be applied within the next year or two.”

Imagine that. A three percent fee added to the price of an airline ticket — a ticket that’s already loaded with other fees, including taxes, facilities fees and fuel surcharges.

Travelers have been pelted by a barrage of fees, levies, surcharges and extras for years. But just when you were convinced that the travel industry had thought of it all, it comes up with yet another clever way of separating you from your money. And unlike Harteveldt, you don’t have to ponder a future of frivolous fees. You can see it on your credit card receipt today.

Here are a few of the most unusual ones:

Oh, you work for the government? That’ll be another $5.
The best — or maybe I should say, the worst — surcharges are not just punitive but also discriminatory. Lee Paulson, an executive officer for a government organization in Washington, believes she has found one of these perfect fees. It’s listed as a $5 a day “GOVT ADMIN RATE SUPP” on her staff’s car rental bills. “Nobody can explain this,” she says, “just that it’s an additional fee for government rentals.” Hang on. Don’t car rental companies offer government organizations big discounts? So what’s an extra $5 going to matter? A lot, she says. “Bear in mind that government rental rates are not necessarily cheaper than commercial rates — and often are more expensive,” she adds.

The trays are extra with room service.
The most outrageous surcharges excel in their absurdity. Take the fee Vicky Burton encountered when she checked into an Embassy Suites property in Atlanta. “I foolishly decided to order dinner in my room,” says Burton, a process server in Chattanooga, Tenn. “I was somewhat prepared for the menu sticker shock and I was expecting about an 18 percent service charge. Well, the service charge is now 20 percent and the entree choices are through the roof! I ordered anyway.” Later, as she reviewed the bill, she discovered a $2.25 “tray fee.” “I went wild,” she says. “I was so annoyed that I wouldn’t even discuss it the next day at check-out. I was afraid I’d lose my temper.” The property’s Web site lists a reasonable $2 “room service” fee, but there’s no mention of its expensive trays, pricey meals or 20 percent service charge. I’m sure it’s just an oversight.

Support our favorite charity. Or pay for our safe.
When it comes to fees, hotels are in a league of their own, at least when it comes to creativity. Mayer Nudell checked out of the Hilton Trinidad & Conference Centre and found a mysterious $1-a-day surcharge. “I was told it was a donation directed to a charity favored by the then-prime minister,” he says. Nudell, a security consultant who lives in Hollywood, was not feeling particularly charitable, so he asked the hotel to remove the “donation” and it did. Kari Harwanko was asked to pay a “safe fee” of about $2 a day at a Sleep Inn property recently, and asked to have it taken off her bill, too. It did. Considering that a reliable hotel safe costs less than $200 — and bearing in mind that hotels are reluctant to take responsibility for the items you store in these safes — the safe “fee” is among the most disingenuous of all hotel surcharges. Extra points for originality, though.

You call that a package deal?
When Tony Garza received an overnight envelope at the Las Vegas Marriott Suites, he also got a surprise on his bill — a $5 fee for “envelope delivery.” “The manager told me that it was hotel policy,” says Garza, an auditor who lives in Houston. Interestingly, Garza says he hadn’t encountered the envelope fee at any other Marriott properties. This delivery surcharge is hardly unique to Marriott. At the Palmer House Hilton in Chicago, Kevin Morgan, a software developer from Baton Rouge, La., was ordered to pay $20 per parcel for the hotel’s “handling” of his boxes. He didn’t see it coming. Might be nice to let guests know about these fees before they arrive.

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We’ll turn down your room for $36.
Geoffrey Millstone checked into the upscale Greenbrier resort in White Sulphur Springs, W. Va., a gorgeous 721-room property where rooms will set you back by about $400 a night at this time of year. “Then I found out they charged $36 a night for turndown service,” says Millstone, a veteran travel agent from Clarksburg, W. Va. Now, for the uninitiated, “turndown” service means that just before bedtime, your housekeeper pulls down the bedspreads, drops a chocolate on your pillow and draws the curtains. I would quit my day job if I could charge $36 for that. I phoned the hotel to find out about the “turndown” fee, and was told there was no such charge, at least not at present. Now it tacks $25 a day as a "resort" fee to your room charge, which covers gratuities for housekeeping service. The turndown service itself is included in the price of the room.

Don’t go changing (without leaving us a Ben Franklin).
Let’s get back to the airlines. Ticket change fees are not new, but the way they’re applied has recently evolved in a truly cunning way. That’s what Bernard Tracey, a seminary administrator in Philadelphia, discovered when he tried to change his US Airways tickets from Philadelphia to Buffalo, N.Y. “The cost of the new ticket was $54 less than the original ticket,” he remembers. “When I asked the agent to put the $54 toward the $100 change fee, I was told company policy does not allow it. When I asked about my receiving a refund check for $54 from US Airways, I was told it is company policy not to refund money. I guess US Airways has a company policy of robbing customers of money.” Sorry to disappoint, but US Airways is hardly alone. Other big airlines apply this new math to their ticket change fees, too.

Your luggage costs more than your ticket.
Think the fees here in the States are awful? Try flying across the pond. “Ryanair has an amazing structure of charging for baggage over 20 kilos,” says Patrick Harris, who runs a fabric business in Carbondale, Ill. For those of you who don’t do the metric system, 20 kilos is about 44 pounds, or six pounds less than the limits imposed by U.S. carriers. The penalties for overpacking are harsh. On Harris’ last flight, he spent more for a second bag than he did on his airline ticket. He’s hardly alone. This summer, my colleague Peter Greenberg encountered the same silly airline rule when he flew on easyJet .

The travel industry is a true innovator when it comes to surcharges, extras and other little add-ons. It loves to surprise you, the traveler, with them. And if the present is any indication, there’s no doubt that our future will be filled with more fees than we can imagine.

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