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Ed Perkins on Travel: Enough with the fees, already
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Ed Perkins on Travel: Enough with the fees, already

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You've already encountered the dismal "resort" fees, but how about additional "venue," "gratuity," "service," "urban," "facility," and even "coronavirus" fees? I've written for many years that in the travel business, nothing catches on faster than a bad idea, so I suppose I should be surprised that it's taken so long for a laundry list of mandatory fees to infiltrate the hotel and restaurant businesses. All of those fees, added to the nominal price of a hotel room, restaurant meal, or bar drink, are documented in the blogosphere. Some appear to have originated in Las Vegas, but if history is any guide, you'll see them spread quickly to other prime visitor destinations.

The basic idea of mandatory fees is simple: To make a room, meal, drink, or whatever appear to cost less than it really does. Thus, the central and only purpose is deception, pure and simple. The folks who impose these fees try to drum up reasonable-sounding names and excuses for them, but that doesn't change the basic aim of deception.

The idea started with airlines: When the price of fuel increased, instead of raising fares, they added mandatory "fuel surcharges," posting low-ball fares to which the fees were added later during the purchase process. And—surprise—they retained those fees even after the price of fuel dropped. Fortunately for consumers, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DoT) and many corresponding foreign agencies ruled that airlines must show the full price, from the get-go, of any air ticket, including the total of base fare, airline-added fees, and government fees. That "full-fare advertising rule" has been of major benefit to travelers.

But the DoT has jurisdiction over only airlines. Price advertising by hotel, restaurant, rental car, cruise, tour, and other travel suppliers is under the jurisdiction of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and individual states. The FTC, noted for moving at glacial speed on any issue, did conclude that mandatory resort fees are, in fact, deceptive; it issued a "tut, tut" letter to hotels, and has done nothing since. The net result is that nobody requires honest price advertising in any travel segment except airlines, and airlines are trying to undo the full-fare advertising rule. Clearly, it's time to fix that egregious problem.

I don't do politics in these columns, but regardless of your viewpoint, you probably realize that the current administration does not favor any new consumer regulations. Instead, it's trying to get rid of some already in place. So my proposed fix will have to wait.

But when the time comes, my proposition, which goes beyond just travel, is simple: A national WYSIWYP requirement—What You See is What You Pay—for all price advertising on consumer goods and services in interstate commerce. That means, simply, that any advertised or featured, posted, or tagged price is buyable: That's the full amount you pay at a checkout counter or when you hit a "buy" button, with no added taxes or fees at the time of purchase, no required extra-cost ancillary goods or services, no subsequent mandatory charges, and not just one of multiple "easy payments."

Folks who oppose consumer protections are fond of labeling all regulations as "job killing," but I don't propose anything that will kill any jobs. Honest, all-up price advertising doesn't kill any jobs or increase any company's cost of doing business. It just requires them to modify their advertising policy to include price components they already know and have available. The only potential problem with WYSIWYP price advertising arises with sales taxes, which vary state-by-state and within large metro areas. I have no doubt that problem could be resolved.

Meanwhile, until we get some relief, your only defense to the proliferation of mandatory fees is to vote with your dollars, where you can. Try to avoid patronizing places that assess those fees, and tell management why you're doing so. It isn't much, but you can at least get your voice heard.

(Send e-mail to Ed Perkins at eperkins@mind.net. Also, check out Ed’s new rail travel website at www.rail-guru.com.)

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