Sneaky Fees

Sneaky-Fee Survival Guide

Illustration by John Cuneo
Can't stand sneaky fees? You may be paying more of them than you think. Here are some common hidden charges and how to avoid them.

Cell Phone Fees

Sneaky Fee: The salesperson who sold you your cell phone plan set you up to pay too much. Maybe you don't use all your monthly voice minutes, or maybe you text over your limit and incur steep overage charges.

Fee Fix: Wireless carriers such as AT&T Mobility, Sprint, and Verizon Wireless offer prorated early-termination fees, reducing the penalty the closer you get to the end of your contract. That could mean that the penalty for ditching your cell phone contract could be worth it. Before cutting ties, though, find a better cell phone plan through third-party services such as BillShrink; the site allows you to compare multiple wireless plans, helping you identify the one that best matches your needs. Keep in mind that the best plan might very well come from your current wireless carrier.

Sneaky Fee: Your wireless company charges you for things like storing your contacts remotely, obtaining roadside assistance, or subscribing to a ringtone service, even though you don't recall requesting the services.

Fee Fix: Go over your monthly bill with a fine-toothed comb and make sure that you are not paying for extras you don't want. Fight the excess charges with your wireless carrier. If that doesn't work, contact the Better Business Bureau for help in resolving the dispute. Look for free alternatives for some services, too: Yahoo Mobile offers a free mobile address book that could save you a $2 monthly wireless-backup fee.

Travel Fees

Sneaky Fee: You found a great airfare for your upcoming vacation, but JetBlue is charging you $15 just to book the flight.

Fee Fix: Avoid JetBlue's booking fee by purchasing your ticket online directly from the airline's Website.

Sneaky Fee: You have your ticket, but now that you've reached the airport, the airline says you owe an extra $125 for transporting your bags.

Fee Fix: Most carriers charge $25 for checking a second bag, and they heap on heftier charges (up to $100) for overweight bags. American Airlines even charges $15 for the first bag. The U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics reports that airlines generated $669 million in bag fees during the second quarter of 2009. To avoid the charges, pack light. You can also shop around--Orbitz offers a handy chart that breaks down how much extra you will pay for bags, meals, and snacks with different airlines.

Cable, Internet, and Phone Fees

Sneaky Fee: Your cable company's triple-play (TV, Internet, and phone) package charges you extra for a 20-mbps Internet connection, but you're getting only 5 mbps. You also pay extra for premium phone features such as call forwarding, but you've never used them.

Fee Fix: Run a bandwidth speed test at a site like BroadbandReports.com to find out if you're getting the Internet connection speed you're paying for. If not, call your provider and ask for a discount. If you don't need all the features you're paying for, investigate any other triple-play packages with fewer bells and whistles that your service provider might offer, and request a no-penalty transfer. Threaten to take your business elsewhere if your provider doesn't agree. With DSL companies and satellite TV providers, you almost always have alternatives.

Sneaky Fee: EarthLink charges an extra $1 to send a monthly statement to your home.

Fee Fix: Find out what your fee-free options are for paying your bill. Most companies offer free bill payment via the Web.

Financial Fees

Sneaky Fee: When you use your bank card for retail purchases, you keep seeing 35 cent point-of-sale fees. And when you ask for cash back at a store, you get hit with a $2 charge as if you had used a competing bank's ATM.

Fee Fix: Go ahead and use your bank card--but when asked, always sign for the purchase by choosing the credit option, not debit, to avoid the 35 cent fee. If you must have cash back, odds are you'll be stuck with the ATM charge; consider looking for a nearby in-network ATM to dodge the fee.

Sneaky Fee: You overdrew your bank account by a couple bucks, but the bank is charging you $35 to cover the overage. Worse, you never even asked for overdraft protection.

Fee Fix: Contact your bank and ask to opt out of the overdraft protection. Look into linking your savings account to your checking account so that money in your savings account can cover overdrafts automatically.

Sneaky Fee: Wachovia Bank charges you $5.95 per month to download account information to Microsoft Money, QuickBooks, or Quicken.

Fee Fix: A number of banks charge similar fees. If yours does so, ask if you can switch to an account that doesn't charge to download data. At Wachovia Bank, the $5.95 charge is waived if you have a "premium" savings account that maintains a $5000 balance. If that doesn't work for you, switch banks.

Sneaky Fee: You gave a friend a gift card, only to find out that they lost part of your gift to monthly inactivity fees and maintenance charges.

Fee Fix: In 2008 the gift-card industry earned $6 billion in fees and expired cards, according to TowerGroup, a research arm of MasterCard. True reform is on the way with the passage of the Credit Card Act of 2009, which limits the number of fees that gift-card companies can charge--however, the new regulations don’t go into effect until August 2010. If you plan to give another gift card, consider doing business with companies that have taken a no-fee pledge. In October, American Express announced that it would cut many gift-card fees, though it still charges a one-time fee between $2.95 and $6.95 for the purchase of the card.

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