Airport Counter Fees Are Theft

Walter Rhein
Photo by Pascal Meier on Unsplash

I've been robbed on the street by men holding weapons. I've been robbed in public buses by pickpockets. I've also been robbed at the service counter at airports while picking up my plane tickets or rental car.

Make no mistake, all of those situations are nothing short of criminal behavior.

You're standing there exhausted and bedraggled from a 10 hour flight. Your kids are restless and close to tears. Everyone is miserable and all you want to do is go home and go to bed.

Alas, there is one final boss between you and your ultimate victory, and they're just waiting there in the shadows, ready to put an extra grand or two onto your already maxed out credit card.

"I'm sorry sir, this bag is one third of a centimeter too wide, I'm going to have to charge you eighty-seven dollars!"

"Oh, did you want to sit with your infant children on this flight? I'm sorry, seat reservations are not possible, but don't worry, we've placed your kids in the middle seat among a group of disgraced personal trainers from the US gymnastics team. I'm sure they will be fine."

"Oh, did you want Oxygen on this flight? Yes, Oxygen is optional but we highly recommend it. That will be another three thousand dollars."

"I'm very sorry for the inconvenience."

They act apologetic, but they're not sorry. They've been brainwashed by corporate headquarters to believe the consumer is somehow at fault for this abusive behavior.

What are you going to do, fight them? They know they have you in a vulnerable position. You have limited travel time, you're tired, and you've already invested a significant amount in your trip. As likely as not, you're going to swallow your anger, pony up, pay, and try to move on from the feelings of violation and betrayal.

"You should have read the fine print."

"You should have booked directly through our web service and not a discount travel web page."

"It's your fault!"

But it's not your fault!

There's nothing wrong with looking for the best possible fare when planning a trip!

It's not your fault that these entitled corporations are furious that they can't match the prices of their competitors. But instead of quietly going out of business like they should in a free market society, they use their power and their clout to manipulate search results to feature a fake price and then hit you with a bait and switch at the customer service desk by making up for the low fare with excessive and preposterous fees.

Yeah, that's right, it's a bait and switch and that's ILLEGAL!

Already I can sense an army of angry bots ready to come after this article and tell me I'm wrong in defense of the all-powerful, evil corporations. But you bots better just simmer down for a micro-sec!

Yeah, I get it, you need a few luggage regulations. But could somebody please tell me why no matter how early I get on a plane and no matter how many seats I've reserved, every single overhead compartment within three rows of my seats are already overflowing with duffel bags... and there's not a person to be seen?

I even had a guy try to stick his bag in the seat space in front of me one time, and he got all huffy when I repeatedly stomped on it until I heard the sound of breaking glass.

But worse, by far, is the rental car industry.

The last time I got a rental car it was a one way trip from Chicago to Madison. I made the reservation through like I've done a dozen or so times in the past. But this time Priceline shuttled me off to a new service called

The transaction should have been simple.

"Where are you picking up?"


"Where are you dropping off?"


"The price will be $120."

"I'll take it."

At what point in this interaction is there cause for confusion?

Unfortunately in this day and age, you have to live in perpetual fear that the individual you make a contract with might totally fail to adhere to the terms of the agreement, and on top of that demand that YOU pay THEM some obscene additional amount of money for any misunderstanding they created.

I should have known I was about to get jacked when made me print out a voucher. Why the heck do I need a voucher? Isn't this going to be in the National database? What's going on?

I stumbled into the Chicago airport, presented my voucher, and a few seconds later the lady is handing me the rental agreement. "Oh," she says, "it says to initial but there's no need to do that."

For a second I thought, "Oh, that's nice of her." And then some inner sixth sense kicked in and I decided to look at the agreement only to see that it called for an additional $565 in fees upon return of the car. Oh, apparently she didn't want me to notice that, how nice of her.

Um, what's this, is it some sort of security deposit?"


"According to my reservation this service has been prepaid. Why is there an additional fee?"

At this point she took my reservation and looked at it. "Oh," she said, "your trip is one-way so there is a drop-off fee. To avoid this fee you have to make a one-way reservation."

"I did make a one-way reservation."

More squinting.

"No, this is a same-site reservation which, unfortunately, incurs a drop-off fee. I'm very sorry. The same-reservations have a lower daily rate which is probably why it came up in your search results. Next time don't make a reservation with a discount provider."

Okay, pop quiz hotshot. In who's delusional mind does it make sense for a person to provide you with a same-site fee when you specifically ask for a one-way fee?

The answer, of course, is an unscrupulous programmer and rental car service provider that wants their fare to leapfrog ahead of the superior service of their competitors.

And don't think for one instant that National is innocent here. They agreed to work with, they know that their one-way fees aren't nearly as good as say, Budget rental cars. They're the ones who programmed in this doomsday scenario where a tired traveler shows up with the wrong reservation and is subject to a fee of more than half a grand.

The ladies at the desk worked with me and I got the price down to $300, but that's nothing to be happy about. You shouldn't be happy you only got robbed for $300 when you were looking at $565, and that didn't even count the prepaid $120 to

And, if I'd walked off without looking at the agreement as the National agent urged me to do, I'd have been on the hook for all of it, which is dodging a pretty massive, fast moving bullet.

This kind of treatment is unacceptable. The worst thing is you still don't know how much you will eventually pay until a week or two after you return the car. You have to hold your breath and fret over additional fabricated charges for non-existent services.

And once they have your money, even in error, it's just a blast, a pure JOY making all the phone calls, sending all the emails, and screaming into the void trying to get it back. When/if they do eventually refund it, they've earned enough off interest to more than make up for any lost revenue.


There's two things I've learned from this whole ordeal.

Number 1. Consumers shouldn't tolerate this nonsense. Don't swallow your anger, pay the bill and try to move on. This is a violation and it will not stand. At the very least, find someone to scream at (not the first person you talk to, make sure you at least scream at a supervisor). Also, let's stop subsidizing all transportation businesses with taxpayer money, they're all stealing from us twice.

Numer 2. I'll never use, National, or again. Theft has consequences jerks. And yeah, even though you had me tired, bedraggled, vulnerable, and worried about my kids when you conspired to steal $300 from me, I've got my energy back now. I'm going to spend the rest of my life ruining your Online Reputation Management (ORM is a thing), and it's going to cost you a LOT more than $300 before I'm done.

So, um, yeah, if corporations in the travel service industry could stop blatantly stealing from their customers that would be great.

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Walter Rhein is an author with Perseid Press. He also does a weekly column for The Writing Cooperative on Medium.

Chippewa Falls, WI

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