Freelance Travel–Beware The “Gotcha” Clause

Vinyl Road Rage 2 on the road

by Joe Wallace

I am still freelancing on the road–I’m filing reports this week from all over the place. Yesterday was New York, today it’s Pittsburgh, tomorrow, who knows? It all depends on the road and how good it is to me. Today I had trouble getting my clients their daily dose of freelance deliverables because of another unexpected wrinkle–did you know Starbucks in those truck driver rest stop areas don’t always carry wi-fi? I thought the whole idea behind the success of Starbucks was standardization…but apparently not.

All was well that ended well, as I managed to meet my deadlines by stopping off in a local bar and grill in Pittsburgh before time ran out, but there’s another assumption that’s not safe to make as a road warrior–even the most (recently) dependable sources of free wi-fi can’t be depended upon for one reason or another.

But there’s a much more important issue I want to discuss today–the detestable business practice known as the “gotcha” fee. What’s a gotcha fee? Glad you asked…

Gotcha fees are the ones you get stuck with because a service company arranges for you to pay your way out of a common situation. For example–the one I encountered at my last hotel, a national chain known for its “satisfaction guaranteed” promises.

I was driving into Newark from Philadelphia a couple of days ago after a long day of travel writing related action–I was visiting and reviewing indie record stores in Philly and managed a nice handful in a few short hours. I badly needed a place to pull over and write, post, and sleep. I did a quick search of Newark area hotels via my iPhone, found a likely suspect and made my reservations.

The reservation agent told me that because I had booked my room after a cutoff time, I couldn’t change my reservations without a $75.00 fee. There’s the “gotcha” setup. You call from the road without making your much needed reservations (in a place you weren’t sure you’d end up in that day) and are basically forced to agree to those terms. The last-minute nature of your arrangements set you up for a $75.00 burn later.

The burn would come.

I got to Newark and used it as a base of operations for my travel writing work in New York City. I had six record stores to review, and I managed to get them ALL done in a single day. Madness, right? But cost-effective madness. I was ready to check out early and get back on the road to hit more record stores in other states. But that $75.00 fee made it sting…I wasn’t actually saving that much money by checking out earlier than expected.

You really have to be careful when dealing with hotels, airlines and other travel related industries. The current economic climate has sent some of these companies (not all) to unsavory gotcha-style fees and penalties and the unsuspecting travel writer can find themselves on the receiving end of a burn if those penalties aren’t anticipated.

Here’s a secret–in this particular case, I beat the system and wound up NOT paying the gotcha fee even though I left early. How did I do it? I’ll save THAT story for my next update. Stay tuned.