Can I be charged a fee for paying a low-fare flight with credit card?

Online travel agencies pass along charges from low-cost airlines

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Tony Mecia is a business journalist who writes for a number of trade and general-interest publications. Every week, he answers readers’ questions about credit card rewards programs in his “Cashing In” column.

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Do online travel agencies charge 'hidden' fees on low-cost flights?

Some low-cost airlines charge a fee for paying with a credit card.

Online travel agencies (OTA), such as Expedia, pass along these fees to their customers – sometimes resulting in a total flight cost different from what was publicized at first. Depending on the OTA, those fees might be disclosed only until you enter the payment method – but that doesn't necessarily mean they are "hidden." 

Expert Q&A

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Dear Cashing In,
I purchased an airline ticket from Los Angeles to Guadalajara, Mexico, on Expedia. It displayed the cost, fees and taxes totaling $306.43. It issued a message before I confirmed the transaction: "What you see is what you pay. No hidden fees or charges."

When the charge was made, they added on a $31 fee from the airline for using a credit card. I disputed it with Chase and they said they could not do anything.

Can a merchant just add on fees like that? What recourse do I have? The merchant (Expedia) won't do anything. – Peter 

Dear Peter,

This seems like a straightforward question. But the answer is complicated, and there’s a little more to the story that I was able to uncover.

Let’s unpack this a little bit, explain what happened and then review your options.

  • You went to Expedia to buy a plane ticket between Los Angeles and Guadalajara. 
  • Expedia is what is known as an online travel agency, or OTA, which is able to search multiple airlines and show you the best fares and flights.
  • Unlike with hotels, you generally do not find airline tickets on OTA sites that are cheaper than what you can find on the airlines’ own websites.
  • More than a decade ago, most airlines stopped paying commissions to OTAs like Expedia. In some cases, OTAs actually charge a small fee to book airline tickets.

A lot of people go to Expedia or other OTAs like Kayak, Orbitz or Travelocity to comparison shop, but then go to airline websites to actually buy the tickets because they can be cheaper and easier to change if a problem arises.

See related: How to find hotel deals on hotel booking sites

Card fees on low-fare flights

In your case, Expedia showed you a fare on VivaAerobus, a low-fare Mexican airline.

  • I replicated what you did, going to the Expedia site, searching for a flight between Los Angeles and Guadalajara, and selecting VivaAerobus, which has nonstop service between the two cities.
  • On the flights I selected, for travel in mid-October, the total came to $237 round trip.
  • After selecting the flights and clicking “continue booking,” Expedia takes you to a payment page, where it asks for passenger names and payment information.
  • Above the section on credit cards, Expedia states in a highlighted box, “This airline charges an additional fee for paying with certain card types.”
  • When I clicked on that box, it showed that the fee was $24 for Visa and MasterCard – the only credit cards accepted.
  • After leaving the page idle for a few minutes, a pop-up screen appeared that said, “What you see is what you pay. No hidden fees or charges.”

Charging fees for using cards is allowed

Since 2013, companies have been legally permitted to charge fees for using credit cards.

It’s a common practice in many foreign countries, as well. That’s because merchants are charged fees by credit card processors, and they are allowed to pass those costs along.

Many U.S. merchants, though, build that cost into their prices, so you often don’t see it broken out. It’s legal but uncommon.

Tip

Tip: There are all kinds of ways to book flights now, including online search engines such as Kayak or Expedia, your card's travel portal and the airline's own websites. Because there can be advantages and disadvantages to each booking option, start by shopping around. See "Should you use your card issuer's travel portal?" to learn more.

When ‘hidden’ fees are not hidden

It’s debatable whether this surcharge is a “hidden fee,” since it is disclosed before payment, though the total is different from the original airfare Expedia produced. 

I reached out to Expedia for an explanation. Their public relations representative asked for your itinerary information to try to sort out the details, but she did not otherwise provide an explanation or comment.

Options when dealing with card fees on flights

Ordinarily, your two main options would be to try the merchant (Expedia) and your credit card company (Chase). It sounds as though those efforts were fruitless.

You might also try filing a complaint with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which has the power to intervene if any laws were violated and sometimes can resolve customer complaints in cooperation with businesses. 

The best advice is to pay attention when purchasing, especially if the purchase involves a foreign airline.

Low-fare carriers are especially notorious for making every possible “extra” into an extra charge – such as reserved seats, checked bags and even carry-on bags.

When you add those in, low-fare carriers don’t look quite as low-fare.


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Updated: 09-18-2018