Getting mugged by airlines and governments

Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro was once notorious for thieves, but it's the legal rip-offs you need to look out for these days.
Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro was once notorious for thieves, but it's the legal rip-offs you need to look out for these days. Photo: Reuters

Twenty three years ago, in Copabana, the beachside suburb of Rio de Janiero, Brazil, I was schooled by fellow travellers in how not to get mugged.

In 1990, it was much more difficult than it is now to walk around without money in your pocket so, if you looked like a tourist in a town that was infamous for its street crime, there was a big target on your back.

There was a simple set of rules to avoid being koshed with a lump of water pipe: 1. Dress like the locals. 2. Walk briskly and avoid loitering to look at the sights. 3. For extra safety, stuff your Brazil Real under the arches of your feet inside your boots (which daily became a more formidable task as the local currency was depreciating by about 10 per cent a week because of hyperinflation).

Well, that strange sepia world seems like a century ago. Rio is the next Olympic city, made possible by Brazil’s booming economy. And the traps for travellers are more likely to be plotted remotely by online thieves the victim will never meet, as colleague Jane Fraser outlined in a recent travel scams round-up in these pages.

From the moment the trip begins, the traveller these days is much more worried about the legal rip-offs that lie in waiting for anyone who doesn’t have the antenna finely tuned.

In a recent email, traveller Justin Meyer reported this classic modern combo of government and airline connivance to separate tourists from their money:

“I got caught recently travelling to Argentina from Brazil. The reciprocity fee for Australians ($US100) used to be billed at the airport in Argentina upon arrival. But on 28 December this changed and you have to pay in advance. Unbeknown to me.

“TAM Airlines in Rio asked me upon checking in whether I was aware of the fee and I said yes. But at the boarding gate they asked me for proof of payment. I had no idea and they pulled my bag out of the aircraft hold, asked me to complete the form online.

“The next flight was 7 hours later, and after some negotiation they did not charge me another $1300 that they wanted for the flight change.

“All rather awkward and there were plenty of other passengers suffering the same fate.”

Australians are susceptible to such misunderstandings because there is far more co-operation between government and airlines. The Australian government, for example, requires airlines to include punitive travel taxes, such as the $55 passenger movement charge for international travel, in their ticket price.

There are apparently no such understandings between governments and airlines in South America, which enables TAM to attempt open slather on travellers using the not-so-old trick of penalties for last-minute ticket changes.

Airlines collectively have more fine print in their “terms of carriage” than almost any retail industry on earth. Once it was a dormant, rarely used “gotcha”, but that was before the trend of the past decade or so of turning airfares into a bare-bones base rate and a series of extra tickable charges.

Airlines have never been hungrier for every dollar they can get their hands on. So-called ancillary revenue is the new name of the game.

I was reminded of that last week when Qantas announced its new international baggage policy, which actually increases the weight allowance for economy passengers from 23 kgs to 30 kgs.

I’d suggest you invest in a set of very accurate scales at home if you want to avoid the excess baggage charges you may face if you plan to book on Qantas Intenational – up to $60 per kg to Europe, for example.

The feedback I’ve had in the past is that such astronomical fees, which most airlines have on their books, are sometimes waived, but my feeling is that we’re now in an era where that will be less and less the case.

The new modus operandi is to get people through the door with a competitive base fare and go the whole hog on ancillary fees.

Have you been ambushed by annoying extras you weren’t expecting to pay? Do you have a “personal worst” for the biggest fees ripoff you’ve found – levied either by airline or government? Which continent or country do you reckon is the worst for such fees?

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