15 Things That Used to Be Free – But Now Cost Money

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You might be surprised when you’re billed for a product or service that was once free of charge – but you shouldn’t be. In an ever-changing economy, businesses are continually updating their pricing models and unfortunately, that often leads to eliminating freebies.

1. Hotel Amenities 

Most people consider advertised hotel amenities like WiFi, the swimming pool, business center, on-site gym, and continental breakfast to be complementary perks – or at least included in the price of your stay. However, hotels increasingly transfer the costs of these “free” amenities onto visitors’ bills through resort fees. You may be able to negotiate and have these fees waived, but typically you’ll pay them whether or not you use any amenities at the hotel.

2. Drink Refills

It used to be standard restaurant practice to offer “bottomless” refills on soda and coffee. Unfortunately for thirsty consumers, free refills are slowly being phased out by some dining establishments.

Businesses like theme parks and zoos have adopted the policy of offering free refills with the purchase of a refillable mug. You pay a premium for the first drink, but every one after is on the house.

Starbucks only offers free drip coffee refills – even if your original order was a non-fat iced pumpkin spice latte – but you have to show their rewards app and use a registered Starbucks gift card for the original purchase. So for most customers, no free drip coffee refills at Starbucks.

Don’t fret too much about being charged for refills; most fast-food restaurants still allow you to go back to the soda fountain again and again. However, some restaurants have adopted a lightly-policed, one-free-refill policy.

3. Extras at Restaurants 

Speaking of restaurants, there’s another way they’re quietly tacking extra charges onto your bill. It used to be that you could request as many ketchup packets or sides of ranch dressing as you wanted. Simply ask and you would receive.

That’s changed over the last few years as restaurants have recognized the significant cost of giving customers unlimited condiments. It may seem cheap to charge $.50 for a packet of BBQ sauce, but over time the costs add up for restaurant owners.

Remember, many fast food restaurants are franchised, so locations may have a varying sauce-charging policies.

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4. Water

Despite popular belief, restaurants in the United States aren’t legally required to offer free water to guests. In fact, dining establishments in drought-stricken states like California are restricted from offering water unless the guest requests it.

Many diners are willing to pay exorbitant amounts for bottled artisanal mineral water that really isn’t all that different from tap water. If bottled water is the restaurant’s standard offering, specify that you’d like tap water.

Some McDonald’s franchises have found that water is a way to boost revenue and don’t offer free water cups. Instead you’ll pay over a dollar for a bottle of Dasani.

5. Everything Air Travel

In the golden era of flight travel, your ticket would include in-flight entertainment, peanuts or pretzels, a ginger ale, and if the flight was long enough, a full meal. Did you forget headphones? The airline would give you a set free of charge. Need a pillow? Your flight attendant would bring one and not require you to tap a credit card.

Sure, the low quality of in-flight meals were classic ’90s stand-up fodder, but at the end of the day they were free! Or at least included in the cost of your ticket.

Today’s budget airlines manage to nickel and dime you every step of the way, from carry-on charges to payments for pretzels. Be cautious when you choose a budget airline because that rock-bottom plane ticket may come with a bevy of extra charges.

And of course, follow the classic traveler’s wisdom of flying prepared: bring snacks and your own entertainment.

6. Returning a Rental Car

When it comes to travel, airlines aren’t the only ones getting a little crazy with fees. Additional fees tacked on when you return a rental car are catching many consumers off guard. 

The most surprising fee is the early-return fee. This fee of around $25 is added to your bill when you cut your rental period short – usually 24 hours before the agreed-upon return date.

Car rental companies claim this is to mitigate the cost of refunding your extra day and being unable to rent the vehicle to another customer until after the agreed-upon drop-off date. Rental agencies may reduce or even waive the early-return fee if you call ahead and inform them you intend to drop the car off early.

7. TV

There was a time when Hulu was free and paying a small subscription fee for Netflix streaming gave you access to a massive library of content. While there are still ways to receive free entertainment on your TV, we’ve hit the point at which paying for on-screen entertainment is a given.

With almost every studio and network offering its a streaming service with exclusive content, those subscription costs add up. It used to be that “cutting the cord” was a top tip for saving money. At this point it may be more expensive to “break up” with cable.

8. Air

Of course the air you breathe is still free. But some people now have to shell out a few bucks to refill a flat at the gas station. It used to be standard for gas stations to provide free air and water. These days, many air stations require a few dollars to activate the air compressor – some only take quarters but others allow you to swipe a credit card for air.

Remember, most air pumps still operate free of charge. If you do a little research you should be able to find a gas station that offers free air and water.

9. ATM Service 

Up until 1996, the largest ATM networks – Cirrus and PLUS – banned banks from charging surcharge fees on in-network transactions. Once that restriction was lifted, it was off to the races for ATM surcharges.

Customers can pay up to $6.00 for the use of an ATM when they are charged by both their home bank and the bank that owns the ATM. Always use an ATM from your bank when available and you’ll avoid these fees.

10. Bill Payment 

We all hate bills. What’s worse is being charged for the “privilege” of paying your bills.  Companies label these additional charges as “convenience fees.” They tack the fees onto your bill on for processing payments online.

One way to avoid these convenience fees is to send a physical check in the mail. When you pay by mail, you’ll only pay the cost of the checkbook and stamp.

11. National Parks

If you are old enough, chances are you remember a time when it was free to enter, and even camp, in almost every National Park in the United States. Although some parks experimented with fees in the past, it wasn’t until 1972 that federal law was amended to authorize recreation fees.

Today, it will cost you a recreation fee to visit 110 of the country’s National Parks. You can avoid this fee by visiting during a free admission day. You can find information about free days on the parks’ websites. 

12. Recycling

When curbside recycling was first introduced, it was a free service. You were charged a $10 donation to receive your bin and that was that. 

Now most cities charge a biweekly or monthly fee for the service of picking up your recyclables. Homeowners can expect to pay anywhere from $15 to $35 a month for recycling services. Some cities like Seattle, WA and Grand Rapids, MI cover the cost of recycling service with taxes. 

13. School Sports 

Decades ago, school sports typically didn’t cost the parents a penny. These activities were meant to keep kids in middle and high school involved and out of trouble.

A few schools did toy with the idea of a “pay-for-play” model. They were met with outrage from both the community and parents. Today it’s not unusual for schools, both public and private, to charge for sports participation.

The average school sports participation fee is $126, according to data compiled by Ohio University in 2020. These fees don’t cover the costs of uniforms, lessons, coaching fees or travel. 

14. Grocery Bags

You can still get grocery bags for free in most parts of the country However, some Americans are now required to pony up a few cents per bag or bring their own. California and New York have banned single use plastic bags and require stores to charge up to $0.10 for a paper bag.

Even in states where there is no law, some retailers have taken matters in their own hands. Grocery chain Wegmans announced in April 2022 it would phase out plastic bags by the end of the year and begin charging $.05 for each paper bag.

15. Information on the internet 

In the early days of the Internet, almost everything online was free. Granted, it wasn’t exactly the same high quality content you find today. Today, it’s not uncommon to find websites that charge membership or subscription fees. These fees allow you to use message boards, view content, or download reports.

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