That’ll Be Extra: Rage Against the Surcharge

dollarGrowing up, my father would always tell my sister and I how he walked five miles from his home to school and back again each day in the sun, snow, sleet, and rain. He’d go on to tell us of how he had just one good pair of shoes, how he never had an allowance,  and of the cost of things. “When I was your age, bread was twelve cents a loaf, and stamps were just a mere three pennies each.” When we returned to his hometown of Glen Cove, Long Island many years later we tracked his old route with our Oldsmobile and its odometer. His walk to school was a mere mile and a half, as we had suspected. Perhaps I should have had an inkling that his story was a bit exaggerated when he told us that it was an uphill trek both ways. For as much as his daily journey to grammar school was proudly inflated, his recollection of prices was spot on. In 1948, the minimum wage was a mere forty cents an hour, and the average salary was $3500 a year, and milk was eighty cents a gallon (and 2% milk hadn’t even made its debut).

Costs rise over time. This is something we expect. By all logical standards, you would think that as the world grew simpler and more advanced, costs could be cut but it seems that we must pay the price for high-tech development. Progress is expensive. All in all, I don’t mind paying more as the world revolves and costs rise. I would mind even much less, if money was put to good use. I can say with a clear conscience that I don’t mind paying thirteen dollars every time I cross over the The Governor Malcolm Wilson Tappan Zee Bridge to pay for its ill-repair, lest it becomes even worse and we all plunge into the Hudson. Wavering yet rising costs are a certainty of our changing future. I would be lying if I denied that, from time to time, I get a nervous patter in my chest over a future with three daughters’ college tuitions, weddings and so forth, but this seems to be a part of life.

That said, if you are going to raise a cost, then please raise it. I’ll take a wallop to the face rather than a stab in the back or a hidden charge on a receipt. Don’t, however, sneak these surcharges onto my receipt or insult my intelligence. Case in point: the hotel internet charge. It all started at this very time two years ago. My husband and I had the misfortune of scheduling a connecting flight out of Aspen, CO back to New Jersey with an infant and a sick toddler during Spring break week. Due to high winds, we missed our connection by a literal two minutes and were stranded in Los Angeles for three days in a torrential storm without luggage or diapers (another blog entirely).

To make matters worse for the wear, there was a porn convention in town. All the hotels were sold-out. Waiting in the check-in line at the Four Points Sheraton at 3am with two small daughters sobbing with the beginnings of ear infections amidst this motley group was quite the experience. It was like I entered a black hole. The lobby was like an X-rated version of the Star-Wars bar. People with the strangest mix of exaggerated parts were having drinks, strutting around, and speaking in tongues. Our infant daughter was still nursing, and even with my swollen breasts I assure you I had the smallest rack of anyone there. The worst part was that the guy with the red pleather chaps got the last available room and we had to finally settle for a hotel out on Long Beach. After a 45 minute cab-ride from hell, we paid the $379.00 a night (supply and demand – the Dirk Digglers and weiner-jockies of the world all assembled together for a meeting of the minds drive prices up). I could accept that. What I cannot accept is paying an additional $10.99 a night for Internet access after paying $379.00 a night. Isn’t Internet access like air at this point? Shouldn’t it be worked into the price of everything else? I don’t expect to be surcharged for a hairdryer in my hotel room or hand towels. I don’t think I should have to pay to check my email on my iPad. If I can go into a Starbucks and use the wi-fi for free (or perhaps its calculated into my $7.99 cup of coffee), than why can’t the same rule apply to my hotel internet access. I guess it can’t and while they’re at it, they decided to charge us a fee for printing boarding passes on their computer.

A few months back, while staying at a luxury resort in Florida, I asked if I could ship my diapers down to the hotel prior to getting there to save room in the luggage (lest I be surcharged for a fee by the airlines…$35.00 each way). The hotel agreed and gladly added that their clients do it daily. What they didn’t tell me is that it would be a $20.00 package-acceptance surcharge. I have since learned that many premiere hotels sneak in surcharges. There are surcharges to use the safe, for extra glasses in the room, and even a fee for turndown service in some $400 a night hotel rooms.

The sneaky culprits aren’t all hotels though. Sometimes you’re not just charged for add-ons but for taking them away! Now some NYC bars are charging patrons $2.00 for the absence of ice in their drinks. Am I joking? I don’t joke about my drinks. If you want a bourbon straight up sans ice, you may be levied a straight-up surcharge. As if a $16 bourbon was not already pricey enough?

I guess I have been paying surcharges for some time now. As a fan of anything avocado, I’ve always been surcharged for adding avocado to anything. I’m always surcharged for Blue Cheese too. I’m not exactly sure why I pay a U.S. Agriculture Fee when I fly from Newark to Orlando yet I have been paying this fee for many different flights in recent years. Surcharges are the new charges, I guess.

It isn’t just surcharges themselves but the nature of surcharges have become more ridiculous. I’m paying $1.50 delivery charge to the pizzeria to bring a pie to my home. It used to be called a tip. Now I pay both.  If I go a restaurant, the surcharges could be ridiculous. Before I even get to the restaurant for a birthday dinner, I pay a fee for using an ATM and four cents more per gallon in gas  for paying with a credit card. Good thing I didn’t bring my own wine or cake lest I pay a corkage fee and a cake cutting fee.

Maybe the very worst surcharge came this week. It may come as no surprise that it came from my gym. I know gyms can be some of the worst offenders. There is this underlying feeling of doom when you sign that dreaded one-year contract, that you are signing away your freedom. It’s like Faust and the Devil except with gym mats on the floor and club music piping through the speakers.

This is how it all started with my gym: so about seven weeks ago my bank suddenly cancelled my debit card because the numbers had been compromised. They reissued a new card and I had to update all my automatic bills. It is funny how these attempts at making our life simpler, with automatic bill-pays and online banking, sometimes make life so much more complicated. I forgot to update my gym automatic debit. I go to the gym. Everyone says hello and most everyone is nice. No one says, “hey you owe us money.” Two months later, I get a call from gym-guy that I owe two months of membership for non-payment. When I realize what has happened, I explain about the cancelled card and give the gym-guy my new card information. He tells me that there will be a $40 additional service fee for re-running the card. $40. Really???

Gym-Guy says that the contract’s fine print says they are entitled to charge the fee. I get it. The mistake is mine. Like a dutiful gym-goer, I should have called to update the card. I ask if he could waive the fee this one time. He snickered then says no. I suggest we split the fee. He said no. He even insinuates I am lying about the cancelled credit card stating he hears that excuse several times a day. Now according to him, I’m a liar on top of being forgetful. We get nowhere. I ask to speak with the owner. The same conversation ensues. I have no problem paying what I owe. I just can’t stand the excess $40. He says it is in the contract. I mention that there’s a difference between what a business can legally charge and what is good business. He said I’d have to pay it. I was stuck. I need their treadmill and their babysitting service. I paid the $40 but not without saying my piece.  Lucky for him, he caught me at a mid-fat weight and mid-contract otherwise I would leave. If individual customer service means absolutely nothing to them then that’s fine but I mentioned that I will remember that next year when it comes time to renew my contract. Last time I checked, there is a gym every quarter mile around here. Gym-guy and his boss could care less but it is that very mentality that will make that renovated warehouse gym an empty, rundown warehouse again a year or so from now.

We have to check our bills and speak up against the surcharges. And if we own businesses or work for one, we must not undervalue the importance of individualized attention. I don’t expect something for free but I do want people to remember I am still a person. Individualized service is one of those lost things of yesteryear, like door-holding and derby hats. In the meanwhile, I’ll me at my overpriced, rude gym.

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