The invisible costs of travel

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Last month, Heather introduced a new series called The Invisible Costs, with the goal of shining light on the hidden expenses lurking around many of our wants and needs. She kicked things off by examining the invisible costs of something all parents of children deal with: childcare. The post inspired some great conversations and had many readers guessing which costs we would examine next. And after just paying the bill for our family’s Spring Break trip to Florida, the answer was staring me right in the face: travel.

Prices aren’t always what they seem when you’re heading out of town. Between taxes, fees, upgrades, and unforeseen needs, the little things don’t seem so little when there’s lots of them. And depending on your circumstances, many of them can’t be avoided (some of them can, if you plan!). This is why projecting them into your travel budget ahead of time makes so much sense.

According to Forbes, the average cost for a family of four to take a three-night vacation is about $3,609. I often suggest that clients look at big-ticket expenses in the context of monthly budgeting, too, so this three-night trip would add about $300/month to your budget. It’s true that most travel expenses stem from transportation, food, and accommodations, but let’s dig a little deeper to see what’s going on inside and outside of those numbers.

Seat selection fees.Truthfully, these fees are what motivated us to write this newsletter, because they’re getting out of hand. IdeaWorksCompany and CarTrawler reported that the top 8 major U.S. airlines made an estimated $4.2 billion dollars from seat selection fees alone in 2022. That’s a lot of money for one extra centimeter of legroom. For many families, it’s not even about “upgrading” for added comfort–we just need to sit together. Nowadays, this almost always requires upgrading a few seats for an additional fee. On both legs of our last trip, for example, we paid $29 extra on three out of four of our seats just to sit in one row together, more than halfway back in the plane. No more legroom, no nothing. Just sitting together in row 27. If you’re wondering which seat didn’t cost more money, it was Heather’s middle seat. She was thrilled.

Parking vs. driving to the airport. Having a friend or family member take you to the airport is clearly the cheapest option, but when you’re traveling with a family or group, that free ride probably isn’t an option unless your buddy owns a Sprinter van. It sure feels like people are defaulting to car services and ride sharing options more, but I wouldn’t assume the lowest touchpoint option is the cheapest. It really depends on where you live and how long your trip will be. compared the cost of parking versus taking a rideshare at the 50 largest airports in America to help you make the most cost-effective decision. If you opt to park, book in advance to save. At EWR (Newark, New Jersey), we get a much better deal.

Breakfast. At home, breakfast is the fastest and cheapest meal of the day. For the kids, it’s something from the toaster, a piece of fruit, maybe a yogurt drink. For the adults, it’s a bowl of cereal, some cottage cheese, or if you’re me on most days, a black cup of coffee. Vacation is a whole different story: acai bowls, Belgian waffles, Starbucks drinks we’d never let our kid near at home, and they add up. Despite complimentary hot breakfasts making a comeback in the post-COVID world, not all hotels offer them as part of your stay. Consider hotels that come with breakfast to save $40-$80/day, and even better, time. 

Sunscreen. This may seem ridiculous, but we always get price gauged on sunscreen. Every single time. We don’t check our bags on trips of four nights or less, and we can’t carry larger liquids onto the plane. If you’re going to a resort, especially on an island, prepare to get screwed. I’ve seen some sprays cost as much as $24/bottle at hotels convenience stores near the water. WTF?! But as this TIME article points out, sometimes paying the high price for sunscreen is attributed to people choosing top brands, buying more SPF than they need, or paying more for certain certifications on the bottle. IDK. Just seems like they have us right where they want us. 

Pets. Pet owners know about the ordeal to find suitable care for their fur babies while they’re away. According to, the average national cost of boarding a dog is about $40/day, but anecdotally, that number’s probably much higher for many of you. Then, there’s the aftermath: grooming, vet visits, etc. 

International travel. Exploring new countries is awesome, sure, but travelers must also contend with fluctuating currency exchange rates and foreign credit card transaction fees. Some of these credit card fees can cost as much at 3% per transaction. On top of that, international roaming charges can lead to unexpected communication costs. As this Network World article points out, international roaming usage can cost $1.50/min.

Trying to save time during international travel can also cost money. Global Entry fees are $100, but check your credit cards for rebate options, which will solve some but not all of your issues in this area. When we arrived in Turks and Caicos earlier this year, the customs line was long–very long. We were presented with an “express lane” option to walk right to an agent for a couple hundred dollars. Avoiding an hour-long line with two children after a four-hour journey that began at 5 in the morning suddenly felt very worth it. 

See, invisible costs aren’t only needs, but things that feel like needs once you’re already in vacay mode. Consider these, too, because your ability to justify expenses might fly out the window with your $29 aisle seat and $25 Coppertone sunscreen. Alas, you only live once. 

Have you ever been impacted by the hidden costs of travel? How are you liking The Invisible Costs series? If you have suggestions for next month, let us know: [email protected].


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