From Venice’s “music surcharges” to the world’s most expensive club sandwich, we track down some of Europe’s biggest holiday rip-offs.
The St Mark’s Square surcharges
As one visitor to Venice discovered this week, the restaurants that line St Mark’s Square weren’t created with budget travellers in mind. He was charged £38 for two coffees and two bottles of water at Caffe Lavena. Why so pricey? Because he chose to sit at a table outside. Restaurants on the famous piazza add a hefty surcharge to the bill in you opt for alfresco; a coffee at the same establishment, enjoyed indoors, costs little more than £1.
He certainly wasn’t the first to be shocked by Lavena’s policy, if the angry reviews on its TripAdvisor listing page is anything to go by. Two weeks ago, for example, a family of five were hit with a £69 bill for coffees and water (plus an £8 glass of milk for a three-year-old).
It isn’t alone. Caffe Florian, another St Mark’s institution, carries a charge for table service, as well as a per person “music surcharge” when the orchestra is playing. Once added, it doubles the cost of that Aperol spritz. “Head to the bar area at the back instead, for velvet stools and no table surcharge,” says Anne Hanley, our Venice expert. “You’ll also get a ringside view of the barmens’ Bellini-mixing skills.”
The €22 Bellini
Prices in Venice don’t fall once you’ve left St Mark’s Square. Harry’s Bar, one of the best known drinking holes in the city, is famous for its Bellinis. But they cost a pretty daunting €22.
Try one of Anne Hanley budget tips instead, including Vincent Bar in the eastern Sant’Elena district, Bar Puppa in Canareggio, or Bacareto Da Lele, where you can get a glass of chardonnay or prosecco for – incredibly – less than €1.
As for cheap restaurants, Hanley suggests Trattoria dai Tosi, near the Giardini Pubblici, or La Perla Ai Bisatei, over on the island of Murano.
€80 gondola rides
Through silken waters my gondola glides – and that’ll be €80, please.
“A ride in a gondola (for up to six people) is all part of the Venice visitor ritual,” says Anne Hanley. “So choose a gondola and gondolier you like the look of at one of the many stands around the city, make sure you know the going rates (which are set by regulatory body Ente Gondola; currently €80 for 40 minutes) and be aware that you’re not obliged to go on the gondolier’s standard circuit – you can actually use the service as a taxi to get from A to B. Try the popular starting point of Bacino Orseolo, just north of St Mark’s Square; a ride from here will take you through some atmospheric smaller waterways before arriving in the Grand Canal. Don’t forget, also, that you can get a gondola ride for just €2 a head by taking one of the large traghetto (ferry) gondolas with two oarsmen that cross the Grand Canal at strategic points – for example between Campo Santa Maria del Giglio (by the Hotel Gritti) and the church of La Salute (daily 9.30am-6pm), or San Samuele and Ca’ Rezzonico (Mon-Sat 8.30am-1.30pm). It’s de rigueur to do the crossing standing up, like the locals.”
For more on seeing Venice on a budget, check out our guide.
Taxis in Switzerland
Many things in Switzerland cost a small fortune, and according to 2017 research Zurich and Geneva are the world’s costliest cities for cab fares, charging as they do an average of £3.94 and £2.52 per km, respectively (London doesn’t do much better, with average rates of £2.20 per km). The solution is simple, hire a bicycle or walk. Many popular cities – Paris, Vienna, Venice, Madrid, Amsterdam, Rome – are compact. Plan your sightseeing geographically and you can save on all your bus, tube and taxi fares.
Sunlounger hire in the Cote d’Azur
Europe’s swankiest beach resorts charge extortionate sums to hire a lounger. Fees of €20 or more are de rigueur in the likes of Cannes and Sardinia’s Costa Smeralda. Ignore the nonsense, pack a towel, and lie on the sand with the other savvy sunbathers.
Luxury hotel Wi-Fi
This must be the most irritating of all hotel fees. If virtually every modern pub and café, not to mention the majority of hotels both large and small, are able to offer free Wi-Fi, why do a handful still feel they can justify charging for it?
It’s usually luxury hotels that are guilty, and the charges aren’t small. London Hilton on Park Lane, for example, charges £20 a day (!) for in-room access unless you’re a Hilton Honors member.
Many more hotels claim to offer free Wi-Fi, but then limit the bandwidth, leaving guests with the option of spending hours trying to view a single episode of The Sopranos, or paying extra for a “premium” service. Back in 2014, Telegraph Travel uncovered a hotel in Cannes (The Majestic Barriere) that was charging a staggering €300 for 24 hour’s use of its high-speed 50mb per second Wi-Fi service.
Room service in Geneva
We return to Switzerland. The Club Sandwich Index, published annually by Hotels.com but discontinued in 2016, sought to illustrate typical city costs by comparing the price of a humble club sandwich in hotels around the world. In 2015, it found that hotels in Geneva charge, on average, almost $31 for the humble combination of chicken, bacon and salad, putting the Swiss city at the top of the table (just ahead of Paris).
In fact, hotels seem very adept at parting fools with their money. “The cost of drinks from hotel minibars seems to rise relentlessly,” says Nick Trend, our Consumer Expert. “I’ve seen mineral water at €8 recently, and it is always higher than in the bar (or the cost of a bottle smuggled in from a local supermarket). Just don’t open it. And skip breakfast in the hotel if it’s not included in your rate. In more expensive hotels you can pay €40 or more just for a continental breakfast.”
Needless to say if breakfast is included in your rate, then fill your boots at the buffet (and stuff a couple of bread rolls in your pocket for a mid-morning snack).
London’s airport rail services
If you’re in a hurry to get to a London airport, expect to pay through the nose. With on-the-day single fares from Paddington priced at £22-25 in economy class, the Heathrow Express is, pound-for-pound, Britain’s most expensive above-ground rail journey, clocking in at £1.50 per mile. A return journey costs £37 – slightly cheaper, but still more than £1 for each of the 30 miles travelled.
The Gatwick Express from London Victoria is almost as costly, particularly given that First Capital Connect and Southern services from London Bridge actually get to the airport in the same time – and cost half as much.
And special mention must go to the so-called “Stansted Express”. The service (from London Liverpool Street) is the ONLY TRAIN that goes to Stansted. To call something “express” would suggest that there is an alternative, slower, service. This isn’t the Stansted Express, it’s just the train to Stansted.
Spa treatments everywhere
You’ll need another massage after forking out for spa treatments at the world’s five-star hotels. At the Bulgari in London, to name just one (they are all as bad as each other), a 90-minute facial costs up to £210, and a one-hour massage costs £130. More intriguing is the two-hour “synchronised four-handed massage” – a snip at £570 – and the 90-minute “emotional healing with the modern day wizard” – £600 well spent.
Mobile phone use in Iceland, Turkey or Switzerland
The age of swingeing data roaming charges is over, right? Not necessarily. If you’re travelling outside the EU, big charges may still apply. For Montenegro or Albania, for example, there’s a daily £6 charge for Vodafone customers (that’s up to £42 for a one-week holiday). Check before you browse.
Food on any mountain in the Alps
One of the most notoriously expensive extras on a ski holiday is buying lunch up the mountain – particularly if you’re staying in a pricey Alpine resort. Rather than stumping up €20 for a burger and chips every day, buy sandwich ingredients and snacks in the local supermarket and do it yourself. However, eating a homemade baguette while sitting in the snow and shivering is a miserable experience, so look out for resorts that have picnic rooms designed for thrifty skiers to enjoy their lunch in the warm and dry. The French resort of Val d’Isère, which isn’t known for having the cheapest on-slope dining options, installed one in 2016 – it even has microwaves.