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‘Low-cost’ flights, hotels and hire-cars not always the cheapest option

Add-on prices could make 'no-frills' more expensive than paying for a traditional 'full-service'.

There’s never been a better time to travel. But it pays to look twice at bargain flights, hotels or car hire.

Thanks to the low-cost airline revolution it’s not unusual to be able to get from the UK to Spain more cheaply than from your house to the airport. Hire cars when you get there can be advertised for as little as ‘from £4 a day’.

Yet ‘low cost’ has come with a price. Things that used to be included are now expensive ‘extras’, and the headline amount will sometimes just provide you with the bare minimum. While many people are still paying less, the add-ons can mount up and, unless you’re smart, you can end up paying more. This is our guide to making ‘low cost’ mean just that.

At the airport

Dropping off friends or family

Many airports now charge drivers to stop in front of the airport, even if it’s just for a few minutes. Just 10 minutes in Stansted’s drop-off zone, for example, costs £3.50. If you overstay it’ll cost you another pound a minute until 15 minutes, followed by another £25 after that.

How to avoid it: Stansted do have a ‘free set-down’ area at the mid-stay carpark. Your passengers will then have to get the free shuttle bus to the terminal (running every 10 minutes). Or you can fly from Gatwick or Southend or instead. Up to 15 minutes in the drop-off zone in those airports is free.

Checking-in

Ryanair charges passengers £55 if they haven’t checked in online. Or if you have checked in, but you haven’t printed your boarding pass, it’ll charge you £20 per person to print it for you. Jet2 charges £17.50.

How to avoid it: Always print your boarding pass before you get to the airport. Or most airlines now have free smartphone apps that will let you check in and download your mobile boarding pass before take-off.

Taking liquids onboard the plane

Security staff will throw away any container of liquid over 100ml that they find in your hand luggage. You can take smaller quantities through, but you’ll have to put them in a transparent plastic bag. Newcastle airport charge you £1 for the bag.

How to avoid it: Some airports, including Gatwick and Heathrow, will give you bags for free, but it’s best to go prepared. Many supermarkets sell packs of 20 for about £2.

On the plane

Luggage

Most airlines used to include one item of hold luggage even in their cheapest fare. Ryanair started charging in 2006, Easyjet in 2007 and BA in 2013.

Ryanair has now added a new twist. It complained that too many people were now bringing cases into the cabin, slowing down the preparation for take-off. So it charges £5 for priority boarding which lets you skip the queue and keep two cabin bags with you: ‘the only way to get both your bags on board.’

How to avoid it: You can still take a handbag or laptop-size bag with you in Ryanair’s cabin, and any larger cabin luggage will go in the hold for free. If you’re heading to the Channel Islands the tiny Aurigny airline is the last short-haul carrier to still include hold luggage in its standard ticket on flights from the UK.

Seats

It used to be the case that if you booked with your travel companion you’d end up sitting next to them. Simple. But now, even if there are free seats on a Ryanair plane, it still randomly allocates them unless you pay at least £3 each. In our most recent survey, 47% of Ryanair passengers paid for an allocated seat, as did 45% of Jet2 passengers.

How to avoid it: BA, Easyjet and Tui say they try and sit people together if there are seats available – but they won’t guarantee it unless you pay. You stand more chance if you check-in as far as possible in advance. BA and Virgin Atlantic  allow passengers who’ve checked in hold luggage to select a seat for free.

Food & drink

Ryanair scrapped free snacks in 1991, copying the profitable model of Southwest Airlines in the US. Easyjet followed suit when it launched in 1995, and BA swapped its own meals for M&S sandwiches in January 2017. A bacon roll, a cup of tea and a packet of crisps will now set you back £9.20.

In our latest survey, fewer than half of respondents (44%) who’d bought food on BA said it was worth it. Even more likely to put you off your lunch, though, are the food prices on new transatlantic budget airline Primera Air. A ‘standard chicken meal’ on one of its (admittedly very cheap) flights from London Stansted to New York costs £29.99.

How to avoid it: Take a packed lunch or fly with Air France, KLM, Lufthansa or TAP Portugal, which are among the airlines that still serve free food.

Stretching your legs

In the 1940s one of the first commercial airliners, the Argonaut, gave passengers a 40-inch ‘seat-pitch’ (ie the distance from your headrest to the one in front) on long-haul flights. In the 1970s most flights were down to around 34 inches. Now it’s typically around 31 inches (for BA, Delta and Virgin, among others), despite the average height of the population rising. You can sit somewhere with a bit more room but you’ll have to pay extra for the privilege – on BA, for instance, stretching your legs a little costs £50, and £40 on Virgin.

How to avoid it: For airlines that allow you to select a seat 24 hours before departure, you may be able to choose one with an empty middle seat alongside, allowing you more space to spread out. It’s unlikely anybody will take it if there are still aisle or window seats available. Seatguru.com has data on airline ‘seat pitch’, which is a good guide to legroom.

Staying warm (and entertained)

It can get cold on flights so bear in mind that Norwegian charges economy passengers £4 for a blanket. It will also charge you £3 for earphones. Since September, Irish airline Aer Lingus has followed suit, charging €3 for blankets and €5 for earphones.

How to avoid it: Bring your own, or book with any other airline – most long-haul carriers still offer blankets and earphones for free.

At the hotel

Booking a room in Europe

The price for a hotel in many popular tourist destinations may be more than you think. Hotels in Amsterdam are obliged to charge a 6% tourist tax on every booking. In Rome it’s €6 per person a night, which would cost a couple €84 for a week’s stay.

How to avoid it: The only way to avoid this charge is to stay elsewhere.

Booking a room in the US

Many hotels in the US try to make their headline prices appear better than they are. You’ll see one figure on the front page, but then there’s a so-called ‘resort fee’ when you book. This is particularly common in Las Vegas. The Palazzo Hotel, for example, adds $39 to the advertised price, and this is by no means unusual. It includes access to the gym, wi-fi, local calls, and newspapers – all things that you can get for free in other hotels.

How to avoid it: Most reputable hotels will make it clear if they include a ‘resort fee’ but not all do. Check Resortfeechecker.com before making a booking, particularly in Las Vegas where these kind of fees are common.

Hiring a car

Hiring for a few days

You’d think that hiring a car for four days would be cheaper than hiring one for a week, but not necessarily. At Budget.co.uk we were quoted £141 for seven days hire of a medium-sized car from Edinburgh. The charge for four days? £145.

How to avoid it: Many car hire firms offer discounts for a whole week, but be careful if you think you can book for longer and just return the car a few days early. Budget.com says that ‘if you decide to return the car after just three days, your per-day price could increase, which could increase your overall rental fee as well.’ Budget.co.uk says it has the same rule, but ‘generally’ wouldn’t apply it.

Filling up

Car-hire firm Goldcar charges €50 (£44) if you don’t return your car with a full tank of petrol – and this is on top of the cost of the petrol itself. Other car-hire firms, such as Firefly and Enterprise, don’t impose this penalty but they do point out that if you choose to leave them to fill the tank, they will charge you more for the petrol than you’d typically pay at a local pump.

How to avoid it: When you collect your car, ask where the nearest petrol station is so you know where to refuel at the end of your journey. Also make sure it will be open if you return the car late at night. See our car hire guide for more tips.

Driving long distances

Cheaper car-hire companies have often charged drivers extra for making long journeys, with limits typically around 200km a day.

But Spanish firm Firefly will charge €0.45 for each km over just 90 that you travel each day. That 90km is more than enough to get you from Alicante to Benidorm, for example, but not back again. Other hire companies have similar terms, but with a much higher mile allowance.

How to avoid it: Check the small-print in your car-hire agreement. Cheap deals are usually cheap for a reason.

Getting the car dirty

Europcar charges up to £85 for ‘special cleaning’ if it decides that your car is exceptionally dirty or stained. Goldcar charges up to £133, and Firefly says it reserves the right to charge a whopping £215. What annoys many drivers even more, though, is Interrent’s policy of charging £7.50, or more in some countries, up front. It’s voluntary, but if you don’t pay it warns that you’ll have to pay £18 if your car does need to be cleaned or £100 if it needs a ‘special clean’.

How to avoid it: If you don’t believe your hire car needed an extreme clean, always demand photographic evidence of any stains. Check Which? Travel’s guide to the best car-hire firms before booking.

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