Please! Just Tell Me What It Costs

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This is my heavy-duty travel season. Last week, I flew from New York to Ithaca to Kansas City (with a stop in Detroit) before heading home. This week, it’s New York to Chicago to Ft. Lauderdale then home again. I’m not complaining. Being busy, particularly in economic times like these, is a good thing. But I did do a double take at Spirit Air’s announcement a few weeks ago that it would begin charging $45 for carry-on bags that wouldn’t fit under the seat; my luggage of choice. Just the itineraries of the past two weeks would cost me more than $300. And I breathed a sigh of relief at Chuck Schumer’s announcement Sunday that five carriers more major than Spirit had pledged not to follow suit.

Why did this fee push me close to the edge? Because I consider myself a pretty good shopper, but I book airline tickets these days with very little idea how much the final charge on my credit card is likely to be. Will I pay significantly more in taxes? Will I need to bring so much stuff that I have to check luggage (for $30 or more)? Will I get hungry and spend six dollars to buy a mediocre snack? Am I the only one who would rather pay a little more but understand precisely what those charges will be?

Thankfully, no. Edgar Dworsky, the longtime consumer advocate behind consumerworld.org, is right there with me. He’s waging a revolution, as he calls it, on behalf of “complete pricing.” That would be a price where you actually know – before you buy – how much it’s going to cost. What a concept. “Think of all the services,” he gripes, “where they advertise one price, but when the bill comes it’s substantially more.” For instance:

• Rental cars: You’ll pay state and local taxes, which vary depending on where you are, airport concession fees (which can hit 10%), parking taxes, fees for licensing the car and sometimes extra for renting “in season.”

• Hotels: Fees vary widely but you may be charged for towels at the pool, use of the health club, use of the in-room safe, energy (added on when gas prices went sky high but likely not removed when they came down), receiving or sending packages (not the postage but the sending and receiving) and the formerly free airport shuttle.

•Cable/phone/Internet: Watch for early termination fees, phantom data fees, second outlet fees, as well as a handful of dollars for each box, federal subscriber line charge and taxes.

“Why is it that they advertise Triple Play at $99 but it ends up costing $123 or something?” asks Dworsky? “Because the marketers like $99 but they’d hate $123.”

So what do you do in the meantime? Ask a lot of questions whenever you book or buy a service like this. (What are the taxes? What are the fees? What am I going to be charged for that I don’t know to ask you about? How much does the typical bill run over the initial price?) Call back every six months to see if you can re-up for whatever teaser rate they’re offering. (My cable company wouldn’t take me back to the initial low-low rate, but phone calls like this have elicited $50 off my bills for six months running – particularly now that I can cite the new competition in my marketplace, thank you FIOS.) And always, always budget to spend more than you think you will. As I’d do for any home-improvement project, I gross up my expectations by 10 to 15 percent. Dworsky is even more pessimistic; he plans for 25 percent.

And if you have suggestions or strategies – please send them my way. I’m not cheaping out, I just want transparency. Let the “complete pricing revolution” begin.

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