Vacation Extras

Margaret Atkins MunroLet's Talk About MoneyLeave a Comment

It probably comes as no surprise to you that the “as-sold-on-TV” exercise program, promising flat stomachs in 90 days, works only for those who already have a six-pack, and cubic zirconium jewelry will never be mistaken for diamonds by anyone in the know. What’s advertised doesn’t always represent reality.

My family’s recent West Coast vacation is case in point. A brochure for our trip might have read: Beginning just off the Strip in Las Vegas, filled with bright lights, casinos, and shows, with a side trip to the Grand Canyon, and then on to sunny California. Enjoy pristine San Diego, the bustle of Los Angeles, and historic San Francisco. 11 days, 10 nights in 3 and 4-star hotels. Some breakfasts included.

Now for the reality. While the sun shone every day, and the particulars listed in that brochure are correct, what’s missing is equally telling: the traffic jam that crawled across the Mohave Desert, the throbbing feet and aching backs from too much walking and less than comfortable beds, and the hidden costs tacked onto everything we encountered.

Take a look, for example, at the now widely-accepted practice of charging additional amounts for items supposedly paid in full, like airfares, hotels, and rental cars. I had, I believed, paid the full cost of these before we left home. My mistake—while traveling, we were charged additional sales taxes, fuel surcharges, extra driver and insurance charges, and luggage, resort and housekeeping fees. Some of these were buried in the fine print of the paid-up contracts; others we discovered only upon check-in.

Like a relative you must invite who drinks to excess and tells salacious stories, all these additional charges are rarely discussed and quickly pushed from memory. But to give you a taste of how these mount up, I paid $75 for luggage, $7.50 for gasoline left in the car’s tank, $20 for a ticket booking fee, $3.50 for an airport taxi surcharge, $20 for tips to a less-than-informative tour guide and $75 to the encyclopedic ones, $25 for internet access, $7 for a bottle of water in our hotel, and $144 for valet parking.

This trip has made me reevaluate my criteria of what’s necessary. Although I’d like to think I’m bred for luxury, mid-range hotels really work best for me. I can afford more space than in an upscale establishment, and breakfasts are usually included in the price. In my dreams, I’m certain I’ll use the posh hotel’s gym, spa, and room service; in reality, I don’t have time for the first, I am intimidated by the second, and cannot afford the third. The fear of the cost of a candy bar far outweighs my desire for a minibar, and the specter of spending $30/person or more for a breakfast buffet is the best appetite suppressant I know.

Every city we visited made grandiose claims regarding the ease of using public transportation. In truth, the Las Vegas monorail is costly, and stations are located far from the Strip and are difficult to find. San Francisco’s buses are abundant, but the wait for the famed cable cars makes Disney World lines look short. In both cities, the multi-day passes we purchased actually cost us more than individual fares would have, as we often found it simpler and quicker to use other means of transport.

And then there are the claims of the individual tour companies, who promise you first-rate guides and superior service in two or four-hour blocks of time as they whisk you around your city of choice. Since you’re on a sightseeing vacation, cramming every possible notable building into a very finite window of time is desirable. And commercial tours, which usually succeed in giving you some sense of a city, make this somewhat possible, whether using double-deckers, minibusses, or trolleys, or the more upscale antique cars, horse-drawn buggies, or even limousines. But tying yourself to a tour severely limits what you can see and do, and these tickets, even before the suggested 15-20% tip, aren’t inexpensive. Add in the hassles of traffic, bus breakdowns, bad weather, and fellow riders who are perpetually late back to the bus, and all is not rosy.

Reading this, you may think it was a terrible vacation; it was not. I visited places I had never been, and marveled at natural and man-made wonders I had only read about. I met people with a tremendous love of their hometowns, and a willingness to share that pride with sightseers. But leaving my office doesn’t allow me to suspend disbelief. So, even as I was enjoying the Pacific breezes, I was also cognizant of the money siphoning from my wallet, $10 here, and $20 there. And I recognized that all claims that seemed too good to be true, were; the reality of this or any other vacation, while good, could never match its hype.

And that’s okay. We didn’t require the postcard perfection of a typical tour brochure; instead, my family needed a break from our daily routine. Ours was a spectacular and memorable vacation, extra costs and blisters notwithstanding.