If you feel like you're getting nickel and dimed to death, you probably are.
In an attempt to create "sticker swoon," - an irresistibly low price - an increasing number of businesses are advertising bargain prices for everything from cell phone service to hotel stays before tacking on hidden fees and charges to boost the final cost and make it tougher to shop around.
"The common denominator is the drive to disguise what the true cost is," said Joseph Ridout, consumer services manager at Consumer Action, a San Francisco-based advocacy group.
Sneaky fees cost the average American more than $1,000 annually, estimates Larry Ponemon, founder of the Michigan-based Ponemon Institute, which conducted an extensive study of hidden fees for Bob Sullivan's book, Gotcha Capitalism. That study, done in late 2006, found that undisclosed fees cost the average consumer $942 per year, but Ponemon estimates that these fees have jumped 10 percent to 20 percent since then.
"Sneaky fees have been institutionalized," Ponemon said. "They hit virtually every aspect of life."
What's the good news? You can sidestep at least some of them, if you know where they lurk and which ones can be shopped away or negotiated down. Here's our guide. (Note: We're not letting financial institutions off the hook either; we actually needed a separate article to deal with their dozens of fees and consumer-unfriendly practices. See "Big Banks' Sneakiest Tricks" for details.)
The fees: It used to be tough to find a good excursion fare. No longer. Flights are cheaper than ever, says Samir Kothari, co-founder and vice president of products at BillShrink.com in Redwood City, CA. But if you pack a suitcase, need to speak with a representative by phone, or get hungry during a flight, brace yourself for extra charges. And heaven help you if you're traveling with a pet, need your minor child to fly alone or must change flight arrangements for some reason. To be specific:
•An unaccompanied minor will cost you between $25 and $100 above the ticket price.
•Putting your Pekingese in your purse will subject you to lapdog charges ranging from $25 to $150. (And it's far cheaper to put the dog on your lap than in the cargo hold.)
•Change fees run as high as $150, as do cancellation charges. (Only Southwest is free.)
•Checked baggage fees typically range from $15 and $30 for the first suitcase and start at $25 for the second.
•Overweight bags cost between $50 and $100.
•Telephone booking charges range from $15 to $25.
•Paper tickets that are mailed to you (as opposed those that you print yourself) can cost $50 to $75.
•Food is extra, too: While most airlines will give you a soda for free, a sandwich or salad is likely to run $5 to $15.
Why we hate them: We used to disparage airline meals, but these days we miss them. Instead, you get to enjoy your seatmate's fragrant tuna sandwich at lunchtime - and his extra carry-on bundles are probably crowding your feet as well.
Can you fight them? If at all possible, pack only what you can carry on, and include a Tupperware container of Grandma's Chicken Paprikash. If you must travel with checked luggage or a cat, or will be sending your minor child somewhere alone, make a checklist of your needed extras (or risks, such as the possibility that you'll cancel) to use when fare-shopping. BillShrink's recent blog and chart on airline fees can help warn you which airlines charge through the nose for things you need.
Finally: If you're planning on doing a lot of shopping while you're away, stash an empty duffel in your bag to use on the return trip. The cost to check a second bag is often considerably less than it is for an overweight one.
•First, there are activation fees of about $35.
•Directory assistance will run you $2 to $4 per call.
•Internet access fees range by the amount of data you're accessing, but if you don't have an all-you-can-surf plan, expect to pay $1 to $2 to visit any site with heavy graphics.
•Text messaging can cost 15 cents to 25 cents per text.
•Per-minute costs when you've used up your allocated telephone time can add another 45 cents per minute to your bill.
•Unhappy? Found a better deal elsewhere? If you change plans before your contract is up, you'll get hit with an early termination charge, which typically runs $200 per phone.
Why we hate them: So, they give you a cell phone, for which you sign away two years of your life (and your "early termination charges" can be extended way past that time period if you're not careful) and they're so unsure that you'll want to use the phone that you have to pay separately to activate it?
You might not mind paying a fee to access the Internet if you did it on purpose, but sometimes the phone connects without you. (Verizon is trying to figure out a way to fix its phones to stop accidental usage, which is causing a raft of complaints.) You even have to pay for spam. T-Mobile says it tries to block junk texts, pictures and instant messages, but for now, if you get them, you pay for them.
Can you fight them? If you don't want to make a long-term commitment to your cell phone provider, consider getting a prepaid phone that allows you to pay on a month-to-month basis. But be aware that they come with a host of fees and charges of their own, including activation fees. Meanwhile, the minutes cost more and are billed in full-minute increments - and, if you don't use them within a set period, they expire. Those aren't technically fees, but they'll cost you plenty.
If you go with a traditional contract, be sure to read it and be careful about making any changes to your service, including adding minutes. These moves can trigger an extension of the contract - and your termination fees.
You can get free directory information (if you're willing to deal with advertisements) by calling 1-800-FREE-411. And if you don't want to pay for Internet access or photo messages, ask your provider to block them. The cell companies discourage it, but they will block these services for free if you insist.
•Resort fees are the most amorphous of hotel add-ons. Some hotels don't charge them at all. Others say they pay for parking, gym access and other bells and whistles. Still other hotels charge the resort fee and charge separately for these same bells and whistles. These aren't penny-ante levies either, often amounting to between $10 and $25 per day.
•Want Internet access? That's usually another $9 per day
•Making a call? Telephone fees typically run $1 per call, plus whatever charges you run up at the hotel's extremely uncompetitive phone rate.
Why we hate them: You can go to some cheapo hotel and never pay a resort fee, even though it has a hotel gym, a swimming pool, and may even give you free Internet access (though sometimes through cable connections, rather than wireless). But pay $300 a night for a luxury hotel and you're a sitting duck for extra fees. Don't you think that $300 a night should include some amenities?
Can you fight them? It's easy to sidestep the phone charges by using your cell phone. You can often avoid Internet fees if you have wireless access at home (many phone companies will extend your access to their "hot spots" nationwide). But resort fees are random; the best you can do is inquire about them while planning your trip, and if a hotel charges one, just add it into your comparison prices. You may still decide to stay at a hotel that charges fees, but you're less likely to feel ripped off if you know it's coming.
The fees: You need to rent a car and think you've nabbed a great rate, but then come the add-ons. The major agencies do not charge all of them, but you can expect to see at least a few on your next bill.
•Concession recovery fee is essentially the rental car company charging you to recoup the amount the airport charges it to offer services there. On one recent rental, purportedly for $263, it was more than 11 percent of the rental cost, about $33.
•Vehicle license recovery fee, usually $2 to $5, is you paying the rental car company to license its vehicles. (We thought that was just a cost of doing business.)
•Energy surcharges run 50 cents to $3. What's it for? To keep the rental car company's lights on.
•Tire and battery recovery, $1 to $3, pays for the disposal of bad tires and dead batteries.
•Traveling with a friend? The additional driver fee will cost you $5 to $10 - or more if the other driver is younger than 25.
And then on top of the fees, the rental agencies try to convince you that you need these overpriced insurance offers:
•Loss damage waiver, $25 to $30 daily, is collision insurance coverage that guarantees the car rental company won't come after you for scratches or dents, or even for totaling their rental car.
•Liability coverage, $12 to $13 per day, ensures that you won't lose your assets if you hit somebody with your rental car.
•Personal effects coverage, $4 to $6 per day, reimburses you if something is stolen from your rental car.
Why we hate them: The concession fees, licensing cost and energy surcharges just cover operational costs, which you'd normally assume was factored into the rental cost of the car (much like the "resort fees" should have been factored into the cost of the room). But these passed-on overhead charges can raise the advertised cost of the rental by 25 percent.
The insurance coverage you buy at the rental counter largely mimics the auto coverage you probably already have, except there's no deductible. For that, you pay annualized rates that knock your socks off. Multiply the daily rate for buying all this coverage - about $25 for the loss damage waiver, $12 for the liability coverage, and $4 for the personal effects coverage - by 365 days and you get $14,965. That's roughly 30 percent more than the retail price of buying the Hyundai Accent you just rented.
Can you fight them? The airport concession and other cost recovery fees are neither negotiable nor avoidable. While some off-site rental car companies reduce the airport concession recovery fee, the search and inconvenience of getting to these remote locations can eliminate any real savings. You're stuck; just budget for them.
On the other hand, the add-ons for insurance supplements, including the loss damage waiver, are easy to decline. If you have auto insurance at home, it covers you on the road. Pay with a credit card, and you get additional coverage from most major card issuers. Car rental salespeople will warn that neither your insurance nor the credit card will cover their loss of use for the vehicle, which they might try to levy at a ludicrous daily price if you're in an accident. But this may well be more inconvenience than economic threat, since their loss-of-use claims would have to be substantiated (if pressed).
Television, Telephone and Internet
The fees: It doesn't matter whether the company selling you a bundle of services, including clearer television, high-speed Internet and telephone services, is a cable company, Dish or DirectTV. They all draw you in with super-low offers - as little as $70 for everything - and then start boosting the price the moment you bite.
•Internet speed tiers. The service hooks you with a $9.99 per month offer for "high speed" Internet, but it turns out that this connection isn't actually that speedy. For the speed you expect, it's likely to cost $30 or $40.
•Second television set. The fee for your cable or satellite service likely covers just one television; adding a second or third set will cost you $5 to $10 per month.
•DVR rental. You want to record TV shows? That's an extra $5 or $6 a month.
•Cancellation fees. Cancel the television service in less than 24 months and you'll be hit with a fee as high as $400.
Why we hate them: When you're buying "high speed" Internet, you actually expect it to be fast. Who knew it could be almost as poky as dial-up? And what household, beside your great grandmother's, has just one television?
Meanwhile, if you want to cancel your cable or satellite service because it has so many outages that you're favorite show has turned into static, you can't leave without a staggering fee. Satellite companies make the cancellation fees charged by cell phone makers look puny.
Can you fight them? If you're not willing to go Ted Kaczynski and cut off all connections with the outside world, make up a list of what's important to you and use it while shopping. Things to ask about: DVR rental fees, costs for additional phone lines, Internet speed, installation charges, and whether you'll have to sign a contract. The fees are mostly unavoidable, but you can get a better deal if you're careful.
Also, make sure that you shop around whenever your exit fees are about to expire. If it looks like you're ready to flee, many companies will come up with special offers that can cut your costs by 20 percent or more. It still won't be as low as the advertised price, but it can provide real savings nonetheless.
Adding It Up
These are the days of caveat emptor. If an offer sounds too good to be true - or even just surprisingly cheap - look for the catch. If you don't, you're likely to find it after the product is consumed and the sneaky fee is on your bill.
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