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Nickel and Dimed: Little Fees Add Up Big

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When the CEO of low-cost airline RyanAir announced a plan to install coin-operated toilets in the company’s planes, he ignited a PR mess of gargantuan proportions. Travelers rose up in protest. They already charge us for drinks and snacks, but paying to pee? That’s just too much.

Beleaguered consumers already feel like their money is being slowly and involuntarily drained by credit cards, cable companies, hotels, and countless other cash suckers. Sometimes, it seems that everybody’s lined up with their hand out, desperate to collect their measly $2 or $5.

Those tiny sums may not seem like much, but they can really add up. A 2006 study by the Ponemon Institute found that the average American adult paid $942 per year in hidden fees and upcharges—almost a grand a year being piddled away out of our control. Lots of those charges are ostensibly to make up for high fuel prices or the increasing cost of materials, although you don’t see many companies removing the fees once those prices go down. While we reluctantly acknowledge that some upcharges make sense, others will always make us cranky.

Airline Baggage Fees

If you’re traveling far enough that you have to fly, you’ll probably be taking luggage with you. That’s just common sense, and charging a fee for each and every bag is just a cheap way to wring cash out of customers. Airline travel is tough enough already, and the bag fees only result in crabby, broke passengers and less room in the overhead bins for legitimate carry-ons.

These charges are a slippery slope, too. If airlines can charge a fee per bag, what’s to stop them from calculating fares based on a passenger’s weight? I don’t expect an airline to serve me a gourmet meal or rub my feet, but airplane tickets should also cover a modest amount of luggage. If they can afford to let babies fly for free, then I want to be able to bring along a suitcase with more than three ounces of shampoo. It’s only fair—and my suitcase doesn’t scream or smell like rancid milk.

Restaurant “Extras”

Is brown rice really so much more expensive than white rice that restaurants need to charge $2 for it? And what about soy milk—why does a soy latte cost more than a regular latte?

Considering the size of portions at most eateries, it also feels unreasonable to be charged a $5 “share fee” if I want to split an entrée. Most of all, I’d love to know why I pay more for an omelette with only egg whites, when actually, I’m ordering less product. The way I see it, I’m doing the restaurant a favor by not eating those yolks—now they can make custard.

Tipping Point

As a former tipped employee, I understand that certain people always get tipped; their livelihoods depend on it. I have no problem tipping waitstaff, bartenders, facialists, and hairstylists.

However, when I go to the salon for a cut, why do I have to tip the coat check girl, the shampoo girl, and the girl who dusts the hair off my shoulders? When I go to a hotel, why do I have to tip the guy who shows up uninvited to demonstrate how the bathtub works? Americans have reached tipping saturation. We tip everyone we can, now will the rest please leave us alone?

Shortfall Charges

I opened my home phone bill a few months ago and saw that the company had instituted a new rule: if you don’t make the required amount of long-distance calls per month, then you’ll be charged a fee to make up for it. Either you get billed for the service you use, or you get billed for service you don’t use. Plenty of companies charge a variation on this kind of fee. Maintenance charges for unused credit accounts make me equally stabby.

Rider Rip-Offs

In some cities, taxis charge a fee for each piece of luggage or each passenger, regardless of the fact that the driver puts forth the same effort whether there’s one rider or four. In New York City, taxis levy surcharges of 50¢ between 8 p.m. and 6 a.m., and $1 between 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. Why the fee? The meter already takes slow traffic into account when calculating the fare and drivers do get paid for sitting around. Maybe I’d be more sympathetic if they used those extra dollars to invest in air fresheners.

In-Convenience Fees

Online movie ticketing may be a great invention, but why do theaters charge extra for tickets purchased online or over the phone? Isn’t the point of online ticketing that the theater can save money on box-office staff? If the point is to direct customers to lower-cost methods of payment, it seems counterproductive to charge them a fee. I’m talking to you, too, Ticketmaster.

The creeping trend here is toward a society where everything is for sale à la carte. While a pay-for-what-you-use model doesn’t sound so bad in theory, it becomes troublesome when even basic services are presented as upgrades and luxuries. Your base airline ticket might be $100, but by the time you’ve added up the check-in fee, ticket-printing fee, and refreshment surcharge, you’re paying $200. If you eat out in a restaurant, you might not order the special expensive brown rice or soy milk, but what if restaurants start charging a clean-cutlery charge or a special air-purification fee for sitting in the non-smoking section? The scariest thing about it is that considering all the other fees we pay, it seems almost logical.