Like many travelers, Hal Frost is accustomed to being hit with fees everywhere he goes, from the airport check-in counter to the hotel front desk. But long-term parking used to always be pretty straightforward: the rate he was quoted was the rate he paid.
When he parked his car in New York recently through a site called NetParkNFly (www.netparkfly.com) he found several fees added to his bill, including a fuel surcharge fee, a customer service fee, and an access fee. There's no explanation of these extras on the company's website.
"What are those for?" he wondered.
Just as an aside, sometimes you're better off not knowing what fees are for, because it makes you even more upset. But the fact that airport parking areas have taken a page from the airline and hotel industry -- well, that should surprise no one.
What is surprising, at least to me, is that the fee contagion hasn't spread any faster.
I suggested Frost ask NetParkFly about his bill. He sent the company a brief, polite e-mail, requesting that it explain the extras.
"Parking lots sometimes charge a fuel surcharge to recoup their fuel fees," a representative responded. "Access fee is a fee that the airport charges and the parking lot has to give that to them. Customer service fee is a fee that we charge to each booking made on the website to cover our fees involved with the transaction."
So the rate you're charged for parking doesn't cover the parking company's own gas expenses.
Nor does it pay for their rent, or the cost of providing "customer service."
Kind of makes you wonder what the parking fee does cover.
NetParkFly is hardly alone. Another parking service, SmartParkJFK.com (www.smartparkjfk.com) also charges a "one-time" fuel surcharge (but it promises a "low parking rate!"). Executive Valet Airport Parking (www.executivevalet.com) at Bradley International Airport charges a 4% "airport access" fee. United Airport Parking at the Port of Miami is known to have charged a $5 customer service fee, too.
These extras are rarely disclosed to the satisfaction of customers, are often only revealed at the last minute, and can inflate their parking bills by a few dollars. And while that may be a minor annoyance to air travelers, it can add hundreds of thousands of dollars to a parking lot operator's revenues.
That strikes some travelers as dishonest and greedy.
What should happen? The price you are quoted should always be the price you pay for parking -- the full price you pay -- unless you extend your stay. Even then, you should only pay an all-inclusive rate for the extra day. (No late fees, please.)
I can understand why parking lot operators would want to add these surcharges. By breaking out the cost of parking, they can make their spots look extra cheap. We're all familiar with this business strategy; airlines have perfected it with their often deceptive à la carte fees.
But customers are unhappy. Asked what he thought about the creative fees, Frost told me he thought they were "a lot of hooey."
I think you shouldn't have to bring a calculator along to the airport to figure out how much your parking bill will cost. I'm not sure if this kind of pricing is ethical, particularly if there's no way to opt out of them.
Good thing there are lots of other parking lot operators in New York that don't engage in these pricing tricks -- for now.
Christopher Elliott is the author of the upcoming book "Scammed: How to Save Your Money and Find Better Service in a World of Schemes, Swindles, and Shady Deals" (Wiley). He's also the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the co-founder of the Consumer Travel Alliance, a nonprofit organization that advocates for travelers. You can read more tips on his blog, elliott.org or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.