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Navigating the hidden fees of online travel deals

So you want to get away, and you're surfing the Internet to find a great deal on airfares and hotels.

The rates look good but when you click an offer and the final total appears, it's $200 or $300 more than the advertised price.

And you're asking yourself, "Where did the deal go?"

As travel season heats up with spring break and summer vacations, consumers need to watch for hidden fees and even outright fraud during their Internet searches for a good travel deal.

I had a chat with Gabe Saglie, senior editor at Travelzoo, who has been warning consumers about travel traps online.

"Certainly people should be aware of restrictions and fees that are becoming more common," Saglie said. "There are extra fees that can double or triple your flight costs."

And there are the hotel "resort fees," he said, that can run up your hotel costs. The extras on car rentals. Airport departure and baggage fees.

Can someone say "Greedy Hall of Shame"?

And oft times, the extra fees come with an "opt out" clause that you have to check rather than asking if you want the added service or item.

"Usually, these things are found in fine print," Saglie said. "It's easy to miss some of these little issues."

And the possible fees and add-ons don't stop at the gate or the front desk. An airline in the United Kingdom talked of pay toilets on its planes while American Airlines announced this month that it plans to charge $8 for blankets.

The travel industry regularly ranks in the top 40 of industries with the most complaints at the Better Business Bureau, with airline, hotel and travel clubs the leading problem areas.

John Zajac, a spokesman for the BBB for Southwest Florida, said consumers should review all terms and conditions as well as cancellation and refund policies before finalizing their deals.

Scam sights often will post the logos or seals of legitimate airlines and hotels without the business' authority to take advantage of consumers.

"We've seen people advertise to try to create trust with consumers," Zajac said. "It's false trust."

So here's the Edge, courtesy of Saglie at Travelzoo:

• Do your homework. Call the travel provider and ask for details on final pricing, including all taxes and fees. Also, compare the total with other market pricing for the same trip to make sure the offer is really a deal.

• Know exactly what is included. Does the free three-night stay come with a requirement to attend a high-pressure 90-minute time-share sales pitch? Does that drastically reduced rate come with a pricey daily resort fee? More and more, hotels are tacking on additional fees such "resort" or "housekeeping" fees that aren't included in the featured price of a deal.

Also, double check that the destination you are flying into doesn't have a "departure tax" at the airport. While typically minimal, better to be prepared before arriving at the payment desk.

• Check references. From word of mouth to the Better Business Bureau's database, do research on the travel provider, especially when it comes to paying companies you may not know.

• Pay with a credit card. This is the safest way to pay for travel online because you can dispute charges for services you don't get. The trick is to promptly report disputed charges. Once you've booked through a vacation company, confirm directly with the travel provider (i.e., airline, hotel, transportation, etc.) to ensure your itinerary matches its records. Print all the details of your trip, including confirmation numbers and contact information for all companies that are part of your travel.

Ivan Penn can be reached at ipenn@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2332. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/Consumers_Edge and become a fan of Consumer's Edge on Facebook.

Fast facts

Consumer complaints

Number of complaints to the BBB by industry:

2007 2008 2009

Airlines4,777 5,103 5,646

Hotels4,897 5,062 4,640

Travel Clubs1,118 1,190 1,472

Navigating the hidden fees of online travel deals 02/26/10 [Last modified: Friday, February 26, 2010 10:34pm]

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