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Palm trees, open seas and ... hidden fees



Published: Sun, May 20, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



A vacation is one of the rites of summer, but surprise charges can quickly turn it into a nightmare. Luckily, there are ways to avoid being caught unaware.

By REBECCA SLOAN

VINDICATOR CORRESPONDENT

For millions of Americans, summertime is the right time to take a vacation and for many travelers, package deals that include basics such as air fare, lodging and meals at one low price seem like the simplest, most economical route to take.

But before you pull out the your pocketbook and sign up for an all-expenses-paid cruise to the sunny shores of the Caribbean, know that the price you think you will pay for your package deal and the price you will actually pay can often end up being two different things.

Hidden charges: People often miss the fine print at the bottom of the ad that tells them they may pay extra for certain things. In fact, there might not be any fine print at all. It depends on the destination, how the trip is advertised and the terms of the deal, said Shari Nittoli of Travel Network in Howland.

"People are often intimidated about planning trips to places like Europe, thinking they will run into all kinds of hidden charges, but actually trips to major European countries usually have very few hidden costs," Nittoli said.

Nittoli said hidden travel costs crop up most frequently in destinations throughout the United States and the Caribbean Islands.

Some of the most typical of these surprise fees are miscellaneous hotel and resort charges; foreign government or immigration taxes; extra car rental costs; and additional charges for food or beverages.

A traditional package-deal vacation should include roundtrip airfare, full hotel accommodations and all hotel taxes, plus the cost of traveling from the airport to hotel. It may also include the option of renting a car.

Downfalls: These are the basics most packages should include, but they don't always include the hotel taxes or the airport-to-hotel transfer costs. These often turn up as hidden costs at the end of the trip if the traveler is not educated enough to ask about them up front, Nittoli said.

For example, in the United States, resort fees, or fees charged to guests in exchange for the use of a hotel's swimming pool, health spa or bus service, can range from $2 to $25 per person per day, Nittoli said.

It doesn't matter if you actually used the pool or the spa or the bus services. The fees will be charged upon checkout, she said.

In the Caribbean, many hotels charge daily energy surcharges. These are fees that cover utility costs at the hotels such as heat and air conditioning. They can range from $3 per person per day to $6 per person per day.

"That's not a huge sum, but if, for example, it is a family of four that stayed at the hotel for a week, that can really add up," Nittoli said.

Cruising: Many travelers who seek the sun and fun of the Caribbean opt to book passage on a cruise ship and not to stay in a mainland hotel. Cruises can include a bevy of hidden costs that can sink one's pocketbook in the blink of an eye.

The ad might say the package price of the cruise is $399 per person, but this may not include port charges to travel in and out of port or government or immigration taxes to travel in and out of whatever country the cruise ship is departing from, said Lisa Franks, owner of Carlson Wagonlit Travel in Warren.

These port charges can average about $25 per person and travelers are charged them when both entering and leaving the country.

"It's a way to make sure they get you to spend just in case you didn't buy anything while you were there," Nittoli said with a laugh.

In addition, many cruise packages will typically include the cost of meals but not the cost of beverages.

"You will typically be allowed to have water, tea or coffee with your dinner, but anything else - beer, pop, whatever - will be extra," Nittoli said, adding, "a can of pop is usually about $1.50 on a cruise ship."

The cost of shore excursions during a cruise is also usually not included in the price of the cruise, something inexperienced travelers tend to overlook.

Cruising of a different sort -- in a car -- can add up to more hidden charges than most travelers can honk a horn at, according to Nittoli.

"Renting a car involves many hidden charges. Most companies will give you a basic, daily rate that does not include state and local taxes, insurance, the cost of a personal injury waiver and loads of other things, depending on where you are renting the car," Nittoli said.

"This is another reason why it is always best to work with a travel agent. A reputable agent knows all about these hidden charges and can tell you about them up front," Wendy Anderson, administration manager of regional AAA offices in Independence, Ohio, said, echoing Nittoli's sentiments.

"A package deal can often be the best way to go because it simplifies things for the traveler. You just have to know exactly what the package entails and what you should be asking about that isn't mentioned up front in the package. A travel agent can help you ask the questions you don't know to ask," Anderson said.

Nittoli said travelers should be especially cautious about package deals advertised on the Internet. "I would never tell anyone not to use the Internet to plan trips because you can get some really good deals, but keep in mind that lots of times the hidden charges of a package deal are not going to be mentioned in the on-screen ads. The companies offering the trip sometimes don't legally have to mention hidden charges such as a foreign government's fee to leave and enter the country because they are not the entity that will be collecting that fee," she said.




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