Travel ‘Perks’ That Aren’t As Good As They Sound

Sometimes it’s best to ignore the hype. Here are seven disappointing travel perks that aren’t worth the cost—even when they’re free. By Caroline Costello, SmarterTravel.com

Have you ever paid for a travel perk that left you wishing you had kept your wallet shut? Some products and services that are marketed as fabulous benefits for travelers are, in reality, big fat failures. It’s often best to ignore the hype—or at least investigate the truth behind for-fee (or even free) perks before you book. Here are seven disappointing travel perks that I’ve encountered.

Have anything to add to this list? Share it in the comments!

2. Business Class on Some Planes

Business class doesn’t always amount to lie-flat seats, free Champagne, and smoked salmon. Long-haul flights on major U.S. and international carriers will, for the most part, offer the business-class product of your dreams. But on short-haul or regional flights, business class often isn’t that much better than economy. According to consumer advocate Ed Perkins, “On many short-haul 737 and A320 flights in Europe and Asia, ‘business class’ is regular economy with the middle seat blocked.” Perkins also points out Icelandair’s disappointing business-class section: The carrier’s Saga Class provides a little more legroom than is available in economy—with 40-inch seat pitch—but it’s on a completely different plane compared to business products like US Airways’ Envoy on A330s, with angled flat beds tucked into cozy little enclaves.

The moral of this story: If you’re going to splurge on business class, pay attention to what’s offered on the plane and airline of your choice. It might not be worth the cost.

3. Free Breakfast

Since “free breakfast” can signify anything from a cup of yogurt to a make-your-own-waffle station with fresh-fruit toppings, those two magical words aren’t always as good as they sound. First, not all hotels serve real eggs. Many free breakfast buffets—especially at budget properties—feature the yellow powered egg product that was originally intended for use ensuing a zombie apocalypse. Start your day right with an emergency-preparedness meal! And in Europe, a free continental breakfast is often just some cereal and pastries, which won’t satisfy the hunger of those on gluten-free or dairy-free diets.

4. Really Cheap Fixed-Price Restaurant Meals

When in Rome … or Paris, or London, or any city where hawkers stand outside restaurants offering fixed-price meals at amazingly low prices, beware. Your dinner could end in disappointment and an unexpectedly high bill. Now, this isn’t always the case: Plenty of establishments offer fixed-price or tasting menus that are, in fact, affordable and a bargain. But others are essentially minor scams. In popular tourist areas, watch out for restaurants that advertise meals for very low fixed prices (lunch for just 10 euros!), then hoodwink diners with laughably expensive drinks, for-fee bread, or hidden service fees.

Check out the TripAdvisor reviews of Da Giuliano in Rome. According to one reviewer, “We were five people and we all choose the 10-euro menu which seemed to be fine … On their flyer, it’s written, ‘Service and cover charge INCLUDED.’ But when they handed [us] the check, they charged 7 euros for service. … They also swindled us by charging [for] an orange juice that we ordered, as all ‘soft drinks’ were included in the menu [but orange juice was not]. They charged … 6 euros for only 20 cl. [of orange juice]!”

5. Free Car-Rental Upgrades

It’s standard practice for major rental-car companies to lure customers with free upgrade offers. For example, a traveler might pay for a four-door car, take advantage of a free-upgrade promotion, and then receive a standard SUV. But if you don’t need the extra space afforded by a larger vehicle, an upgrade could be more of a loss than a perk. Think of the gas costs: Generally, bigger cars get fewer miles to the gallon than smaller, more fuel-efficient models (with the exception, of course, of hybrids). So while the car-rental upgrade is billed as “free,” in reality, it’s not.

6. For-Fee ‘Preferred’ Seats in Coach

Are economy products like JetBlue’s Even More Space or American’s Main Cabin Extra worth the cost? Depends whom you ask. When I paid JetBlue $65 for a coach seat toward the front of the plane with a few additional inches of legroom (along with expedited security and early boarding), I regretted my purchase. I barely noticed the extra legroom (given, I’m short). But to some travelers, the speedier security line and early boarding might be good enough perks to warrant the sacrifice of a few twenties.

Remember, though, that these are seats that were once sold for basic coach prices but have since been converted into a for-fee “perk” because they’re kind of better than most of the other coach seats. Take away the early boarding and you’re left with a marginally bigger window seat that nevertheless forces your knees into your face. Take it or leave it.

7. Hotel Health Clubs

What’s your idea of a health club? Group yoga classes? A sauna? Use of fresh towels? Some (mostly budget) properties feature a totally different model billed as a “health club” or “fitness center”: a depressing, windowless room with beige carpeting and a handful of cardiovascular machines that may or may not actually work. This is not an ideal space for burning off those powdered eggs—you’re better off downloading a Jillian Michaels video on your iPad or just taking the stairs. Guard against deceptively labeled hotel health clubs by reading reviews or viewing photographic evidence before you book.

8. For-Fee Adults-Only Areas on Ships

Is your cruise flooded with minors? Depending on your ship, you can often pay for access to a special adults-only space, where people wearing sensible shoes discuss interest rates and the problems with millennials these days. No kids allowed! This so-called perk comes at a cost, though. On Royal Princess, for example, passengers can pay $15 for a half day or $25 for a full day in the adults-only “Sanctuary,” which has, according to Princess, “strategically placed rock gardens and [a] special topiary planting with atmospheric lighting.” This is perfect because everyone knows grown-ups love strategically placed rock gardens.

Is a kid-free zone really worth $25? What do you think?

9. 10 Travel Tips We Never Follow

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10. Rudest Things People Do in Airports

Long lines and flight delays make for a world of aggravation. Here’s our take on the rudest things people do in airports.

11. Surefire Ways to Get Mugged on Vacation

Senior Editor Christine Sarkis has been on the receiving end of a mugging three times. Here are her hard-earned tips for avoiding such a scenario when you’re traveling.

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