Watch Out for These Hidden Costs of Free Travel

By Holly Johnson on 22 March 2018 0 comments

Almost every day of the year, you can find a new story about a blogger who spent a month in some far-flung country for almost nothing out-of-pocket. And why wouldn't you believe them?

Travel credit cards do, indeed, offer points and miles that can cover the costs of airfare and hotel rooms. With a savvy strategy and enough stockpiled points, it's possible to craft a rewards-fueled plan that lets you travel for almost nothing. (See also: 5 Steps to Getting a Free Vacation in 9 Months or Less With Credit Cards)

The problem: Travel credit cards — and rewards cards in general — don't cover every aspect of your trip. They can pay for the bulk of your major travel components, sure, but you may come up short when it comes to covering other common travel expenses.

Hidden costs of travel to watch out for

There's nothing wrong with aiming for "free travel," but it's important to know what your real expenses might be so you can plan accordingly. How much does free travel really cost? We interviewed a handful of points and miles bloggers to find out some of the biggest expenses people fail to plan for.

Airline taxes and fees

According to Ariana Arghandewal, the blogger behind the popular Point Chaser blog, the biggest expense people forget about is airline taxes and fees. For domestic flights, these include the Passenger Facility Charges, U.S. Excise Tax, Domestic Flight Segment Tax, the September 11th Security Fee, and others.

International flights are also subject to a U.S. Arrival/Departure Tax, U.S. Customs User Fee, U.S. Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service Fee, and U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Fee. Foreign taxes, inspection fees, security charges, and departure taxes can add up to hundreds of dollars more, as can carrier-imposed surcharges. "Some airlines, like British Airways, even impose fuel surcharges, which can set you back over $1,000 round-trip to some destinations," notes Arghandewal.

Flight incidentals

Lee Huff, a travel writer who blogs for Boarding Area at BaldThoughts.com, says that, while some airline cards let you and your travel companions check bags for free, not all do. Checked bag fees can run you $25-$35 per bag, which could easy add up to $100 each way for a family of four.

Then there are other flight incidentals to be aware of. In-flight internet service on domestic flights (if you need it) can cost $5-$20 a day, depending on the airline and itinerary. Snacks in the airport can also be pricey, and so can drinks and magazines. Drive your own car to the airport and you will also need to pay for airport parking, says Huff.

Hotel extras

Even when you pay for a hotel with hotel points or a free night certificate, that doesn't mean you'll escape all costs of staying there. While hotels that let you book with rewards don't charge taxes on your stay, you could still be on the hook for parking, internet service, or resort fees. And let's not forget the costs of tipping housekeeping, if that's something you do.

Resort fees in particular can be costly, notes a report from the Federal Trade Commission. In 2015, consumers paid around $2 billion in resort fees on top of their nightly room rate, and many of those fees were not properly disclosed.

If you use points to book a hotel stay, make sure you understand ahead of time if the property charges resort fees. If you don't, you could be in for a nasty surprise when you go to check out from your free hotel room and find you owe a balance.

Food and entertainment

Even if you have the bulk of your trip covered with rewards, you still have to eat and have fun. You may think you will stop at a supermarket to stock up on groceries to make your own meals, but that doesn't mean you won't want to go out for at least a few meals, right? Make sure to plan accordingly for some dinners out so you don't overrun your travel budget.

Then there are excursions to plan for. If you want to visit local museums or attractions, you'll most likely need to pay an entry fee. Sure, there are tons of free things to do no matter where you travel, but many attractions cost money whether you like it or not. Even many natural attractions such as beaches and national parks charge an entry fee. (See also: 5 Natural Wonders You Can See for Free)

And what about souvenirs? Leana Storts, who blogs about credit card rewards at , says extras we buy can easily add up to hundreds or thousands of dollars if we're not careful. Storts recalls taking her family to New York City late last year, where her husband bought her daughter a $30 chocolate tower when she wasn't looking. Gifts like this can be fun in the moment, but they can send your travel budget into a tailspin, she says.

Transportation

What about taxis or public transportation? Unless you're visiting a small, walkable destination, you'll need a way to get around or even your own rental car.

And if you don't have a rental car, you'll at least need a ride to and from the airport. You can hire a private driver, pick up an airport taxi, call an Uber, or hop on a bus, but all of those options will cost you money.

How to avoid overspending on your rewards fueled trip

While each of these travel expenses may be reasonable and expected if you really think about it, it's important to take time to plan out each aspect of your trip if you want to avoid overspending.

Be realistic, advises Huff. "Make a list of the activities and food experiences that you really want to do, then research prices online," he says. "Budget for the big items, then have a daily slush fund that can be used toward all of the little things that you may not think about."

Plan for what's important to you, but make sure you prioritize your travel expenses. You may not be able to afford every travel extra your heart desires, but you may be able to afford most of what you want if you're intentional with your spending.

If you don't plan, Storts says you could wind up returning home from your travels with credit card debt. It would certainly be ironic to go on a "free trip" only to end up paying for it for months. And obviously, this would be especially bad if your credit card has a high interest rate, as many travel cards do.

"In general, I recommend always saving money for your trip ahead of time and sticking to a budget if at all possible," says Storts. To accomplish this goal, Storts suggests opening a separate travel account and contributing money every month. Then wait to book your trip until you have the cash you need for food, fun, and incidentals. "It's a lot easier to enjoy your vacation that way," she says.

Last but not least, make sure to have a travel insurance policy in place to cover any components of your trip you've prepaid with actual money and not miles. "If something happens and you can't take your trip, you won't lose your hard-earned cash," says Storts. "Travel is an investment of sorts, so make sure to protect it."

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