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Michael Bennett is the former Senior Producer of the Travel Channels west coast operations and is currently a travel writer for Savoy and Black Enterprise Magazine. Michael is the host of Globetrotting on BET's BET on Jazz Network. For travel question write to


After a year of marriage, my wife and I finally took our oft-delayed
honeymoon. We were grateful for a week away from work, kids and the other
trappings of daily life. Our trip, courtesy of a gift from my in-laws took
us to South Florida for a few days and a cruise to the Bahamas.

My new parents won this and three other FREE trips through some special
promotion in the mail. They were allegedly selected at random from thousands
of participants to take advantage of this FREE travel opportunity; all they
had to do was pay $1,500. I wonder what mailing list they were on. FREE and
$1,500, sounds like the classic definition of an oxymoron. Still thinking it
was a good deal, my in-laws paid the money and transferred the trip to us.

On the surface it sounded great. Free hotel room for 4 days, free use of a
rental car for 7 days and a three-day two night cruise to the Bahamas, with
meals and all ship-board amenities included. When you add it all up $1,500
for two people seemed like a good price.

But as with most contests of this variety, the hidden fees and charges
started to add up almost immediately. Shortly after my in-laws presented us
with this FREE trip we were informed by the trip provider that we would have
to pay our airfare to South Florida. Since my father in-law already shelled
out the $1,500 and couldn't get his money back, I went ahead and bought two
tickets from Los Angeles to Ft. Lauderdale. From that point on I became a
true skeptic, but went ahead with the trip if for no other reason than to
investigate how this alleged FREE trip worked.

In the coming weeks I will spell out all the hidden charges and other
problems we encountered on our FREE trip. I'm going to focus the remainder of
this article on the FREE rental car we were provided.

Let me start out by informing you that I arrived in Ft. Lauderdale a day
earlier than planned, so I had to pay an additional $43.33 for the day to
rent a car. I want to emphasize this was no fault of Alamo or the trip

Once we arrived at the airport, we head to Alamo with a prepaid voucher
provided to us by Ramada Plaza Resorts, the company that gave us the FREE
trip. This voucher was to claim our car. Fortunately, I read the voucher
carefully before leaving on the trip and realized it was for a subcompact
car. At 6' 4" there was no way I was going to fit in a subcompact.

I called for an upgrade to an intermediate size car, the charge $8 a day. So
that quickly added $64 to my bill. As with most contests that include a FREE
rental car, you are provided with the smallest vehicle in the fleet. Most
car rental companies are well aware that people who win these contests will
more than likely upgrade to a more comfortable vehicle. Thank God, I left
the kids at home.

Next the Alamo agent wanted to charge us $5 a day for a second driver, a fee
my wife and I quickly declined. I also declined all the insurance coverage
they offered since we were covered by our own auto insurance policy.

Then the Alamo agent told us about this great deal where we could bring the
car back on empty and they would fill the gas tank. The charge was just
$1.44 a gallon. The agent told us this price was just as good as, if not
better than the market rates in the Ft. Lauderdale area. Since we're from
California where the gas price was hovering around $1.60 per gallon at the
time, we thought it was a good deal. As we drove around the area, we
discovered the agent was right. So the $24.48 for my FREE car seemed well
worth it. You can bet when I returned the car it was on "E" and then some.
How many people do you suppose return the car with a half-tank or more? It
says right on the contract "no refund for unused fuel." But Alamo and most
other car rental companies bet you wouldn't bring the car back on fumes.

Now for the fees on our FREE car, first up the 10 percent concession
recoupment fee cost us $22.68. What the hell is that, my guess it's a fee
Alamo passes on to the consumer as a result of their being able to operate on
airport grounds.

Next came something called "FLACHGS" short for Florida charges. It was a $2
per day surcharge for renting a car plus 5 cents per day for waste, tire and
battery. They are charging you for the disposal of old tires, used oil and
batteries. Most major rental companies have new cars in their fleet and the
vehicles aren't around long enough to wear out a brand new battery or new
tires. The total for the "FLACHGS" was $16.40, OUCH!

The "LICRCFEE" or the license recoupment fee was next at 43 cents a day, for
a total of $3.44. I called Alamo and they told me this fee is for the
license plate. What ever happened to the cost of doing business?

Here's one for you Frequent Flyer account members. Alamo is in partnership
with American Airlines. You can rent an Alamo car and earn 50 miles per day
as a member of American Airlines frequent flyer program. All you have to do
is give the Alamo agent your frequent flyer account number and the miles
start adding up. If you thought you were getting these miles FREE of charge
think again. The state of Florida charges a tax when you're awarded frequent
flyer miles. Not all states charge this fee unfortunately we visited one
that did. Total cost for my 400 frequent flyer miles, 48 cents. Not a big
deal, but something you should know.

A finally, you know we couldn't get away without paying taxes on the car, as
if those other fees weren't technically taxes. I'm not sure if they're
federal, state or local but they added another $17.45 to my final bill. And
speaking of final bill, my FREE car cost me $192.26. To put that in
perspective, a weekly rental car from that same Alamo was $193.33.

The FREE car we were provided actually wound up costing our families,
$385.59. If you're one on the unfortunate ones to win these so called FREE
trips, the first thing you should do is find out what is covered and more
importantly what is not. I would be willing to bet that had I shopped around
the Ft. Lauderdale area I could have found a cheaper car to rent. I would
also be willing to bet that Ramada Plaza Resorts didn't pay full price for
the rental resulting in a significant savings to them.

Don't be blinded by the word FREE. My in-laws got so excited by the word
"FREE" that they neglected to read the fine print. In the fine print, and I
do mean fine, like using a magnifying glass fine, it stated "Taxes, optional
insurance, fuel, additional driver fee, drop charges and other optional items
are extra." Unfortunately there is no way of knowing in advance with
complete accuracy the total of these charges. These are standard charges for
all rentals regardless of whether you win a contest or not. Caveat Emptor!