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Ten things that used to be free but now cost money

Pricewatch: Providers are always finding new ways to charge people, but there are also things that used to cost money and are now free

10 Things that used to be free...

1. Parking: Earlier this summer Pricewatch found itself in the Portuguese town of Lagos, and apart from having its head repeatedly turned by the 80 cent coffees and 60 cent pastries – not to mention the bottles of Vino Verde for €3 – we were endlessly struck by how much free parking there was. It was all over the place. There was a time when free on-street parking was pretty common in Irish towns and cities too. That all changed when the clampers first appeared in Dublin in the late 1990s, before quickly spreading to other urban centres. Hundreds of millions of euro have been spent on parking by Irish motorists since those halcyon days. About 1,000 cars are clamped each week in Dublin, with the council raking in more than €3 million each year in declamping fees. It makes almost 10 times that in parking fees.

2 Television: Television in Ireland was never entirely free – the licence has been a feature of our world since 1962, and of course the actual boxes were pretty expensive back in the day. But apart from those two costs, the actual content used to be free and all you had to do was plug the cable into the wall socket and settle back to watch as many as six channels for up to 18 hours a day – or one channel for seven hours a day if you lived beyond the Pale and it was the 1970s. There are still ways to get your TV for free (we’re looking at you Saorview), but some of the other ways are less than legal and many are not entirely reliable. That means that most people end up giving money to the likes of Virgin, Sky and eir, not to mention Netflix, Disney, Amazon, NowTV and Apple. It all adds up to hundreds of euro each year. The telly is a lot better nowadays, mind you, and you never have to watch the test card.

3. Baggage: The cost of bringing bags with you on holidays can be absolutely horrendous and can handily add as much as €300 to the cost of return flights for a family of four. It won’t come as a shock to many to learn that Ryanair were pioneers in the baggage-charging space after introducing a charge of €2.50 for checked-in bags in 2006. Then the floodgates opened, and many other airlines followed suit. The upshot is that we have all started packing with a ruthlessness that past generations would have marvelled at. Mind you, those past generations almost certainly could not have afforded flight fares, so they’d also have been marvelling at the frequency with which many Irish people head off to the airport.

4 Air: Nearly 20 years ago, Pricewatch highlighted the practice of one petrol station chain that had started charging people for air for their tyres. It seemed ludicrous to charge for something so – well, free – but it caught on, and the forecourts that still give away free air are the exception. Having to pay up to a euro for a go at the pump is not uncommon. Is it any wonder so many Irish cars have too little air in their tyres, something that has a direct impact on road safety, not to mention the fact that it reduces a car’s fuel economy by 20 per cent?

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5 Bins: In the 1990s, Irish households could happily throw out whatever they wanted at no direct cost to themselves – although the same can’t be said for the environment, which paid a terrible price for our rubbish attitudes. Bin charges were introduced to some considerably dismay – and not a little protest. The charges have climbed substantially in recent times, and there won’t be many households that will have much change out of €250 when the annual cost of refuse is taken care of. On the plus side we can recycle a lot more than we used to, with a lot more ease – and charging for refuse makes people better at reducing the amount of rubbish they produce.

6 Plastic bags: We are not often delighted by a charge being brought in, but the plastic bag charge introduced in 2002 made a huge amount of sense and prompted a lot of copycat schemes in other parts of the world. The 22 cent charge led to dramatic reductions in the number of bags blighting our landscape. In the year before the levy was rolled out, plastic bags made up as much as 5 per cent of the litter in Ireland, compared to less than 0.3 per cent now. We can’t help but notice that some retailers – Dunnes, Tesco and Marks & Spencer for instance – have dispensed with flimsy single-use plastic bags entirely so that they can charge people substantially higher prices for so-called bags for life and avoid having to pay more money to the State, while claiming they have adopted this approach for environmental reasons.

7 A dash: A sound publican will give you a splash of blackcurrant or orange or lime in a pint glass of water for nothing. But then there are bars that charge fairly eye-watering sums for same. A reader we featured on this page last week was charged €4.25 for what he said was a small jug of water with a dash of blackcurrant in it. While many pubs have paid fortunes for licences and are understandably not very keen on having people sitting around with free drinks in front of them, it seems excessive to charge someone so much for so little. A one-litre bottle of a well-known brand of cordial costs about €2.50. If you can get 20 jugs of cordial out of that one-litre bottle, and charge €4.25 each for them, your original investment of €2.50 brings in €85 which equates to a mark-up of 3,300 per cent – which is not too shabby.

8 Plane food: Pricewatch used to give out about airline food despite the fact that it was free and served to us in a metal tube travelling at speeds of over 500km, more than 20km above Earth, making it by most measures an astounding human achievement. Now that such free food and drink have been taken from us, it is right that we mourn their passing. An unappetising sandwich on an plane will cost more than €5, while a bag of crisps is usually about €1.50.

9 Banking: It used to cost us money, then it was free, and now it costs us money again. If you are the model of fiscal responsibility, just carrying out your everyday transactions will cost you as much as €25 a quarter, or €100 a year. If you are like the rest of us and occasionally have to exceed your agreed overdraft limits, simple banking will cost you in excess of €200 a year – without factoring in Government stamp duties or the tax on our plastic cards. And heaven forbid that you might want to lodge a cheque or buy a cashier’s cheque or something like that. And whatever about banking, paying bills costs money too now. Many companies don’t want to send us physical bills, and charge us if we want them. A person who does not sign up for direct debits or e-billing for all their utilities will pay hundreds of euro more a year than someone who does exactly what they are told by their providers.

10 Driving on roads: In the cheap old days our roads were almost uniformly terrible, but at least they were free. Now most major routes around the country cost us money each time we use them, with a typical toll running to more than €2. That means if you use one of the better roads just once a week it will end up costing you more than €100 a year.

And nine things that used to cost money...

1 Music: There was a time when you had a very small number of ways in which you could listen to the music you liked. The free way was the radio, and you could tape the songs you liked while cursing the DJs for speaking over the start or the end of the tracks you were trying to record. An alternative was to get your buddies to make mix tapes. You could of course buy records, cassettes and CDs. Today you can sign up for all manner of free streaming services and listen to millions of tracks from your phone, or subscribe and pay the price of a single CD each month and listen to almost every song ever recorded, as much as you want. You could listen to music you like from now until the end of the century without spending a bean, making it the most affordable time in history to be a music lover. This brave new world does make life a whole lot trickier for an awful lot of musicians, needless to say.

2 Films: On-demand television and streaming services have made life cheaper, if not entirely free. Streaming services and catch-up players mean we are no longer at the mercy of television programmers and can watch what we like, when we like, with the added bonus of avoiding the ads. The fines that used to be imposed when we returned videos to rental stores days late in the old days are also a thing of memory, as is the need to invest huge sums in boxsets.

3 Text messages: You might not immediately recognise the names Neil Papworth or Richard Jarvis, but they had a huge impact on your life. The former sent the latter – a colleague at Vodafone – the very first text message back in 1992. It read, simply, “Merry Christmas”. As phones didn’t have keyboards at the time, Papworth had to use a computer to type and send his missive. Fast forward a year and text messages had become something of a cash cow for mobile-phone operators, who used to charge 11p or so (in old money) for a 160-character message, or a large multiple of that if the text message had the temerity to cross international borders. Today, text messages are often bundled into phone packages and the idea of paying for them is frankly laughable.

4 Phone calls: When Pricewatch was young and reckless it racked up a bill of more than £400 in a single month talking to a girl in Boston. Its poor parents had to pick up the tab. Phone calls back in those days were wildly expensive. Today, there is no reason that anyone anywhere would have to pay much for calling anyone. Admittedly, the broadband needed to use services such as FaceTime, WhatsApp or Skype comes at a cost, as do the smartphones you need to access such services – but making such calls is very, very cheap compared to what it once was.

5 Culture: If you have not seen the openculture.com site yet you are going to be glad you read this far. It has links to free books, free movies, free language classes, free audiobooks, free courses in philosophy, maths, engineering, and whatever you’re having yourself. Were you to immerse yourself fully in this website, you could spend years entertaining yourself and learning new things before emerging a far more erudite person than you were when you went in. Oh, and if that sounds too cultured, there is always YouTube, a place which has more content than you could watch in a thousand lifetimes available at absolutely no cost at all.

6 Taking pictures: Remember when people used to buy cameras? And film? And then pay to have the film developed? When cameras became an integral part of our phones, we became better photographers because we could see, in real time, the results of our pointing and clicking. And even if we are not so good, there are always free apps, to make us seem better.

7 Mail: When was the last time you sent an actual letter? Email has made communication with anyone, anywhere and at any time, effortless and much cheaper than it once was. Do you even know how much a stamp costs now? Admittedly, sending a wish-you-were-here group email while on your holliers is not really the same as a postcard, but it’s a lot less hassle. And it’s free.

8 Holiday calls: Remember hotels used to charge ridiculous sums if anyone had the temerity to make a call home from a hotel room? Well, the mobile phone brought that madness to an end. But then, of course, mobile phone operators started ripping us off by charging insane amounts for anyone who called home from abroad. A five-minute call from France to Ireland could cost more than a fiver. Then the EU stepped in and revealed that consumers were paying up to five times more than the actual cost the operators charged each other to provide roaming services. Over more than a decade it managed to force operators to scrap roaming charges altogether, and now we can use our phones in Spain and Portugal in much the same way as we would at home.

9 Directions: It’s hard not to feel sympathy for the satnav makers of the world. There was a time when the devices were all the rage at home and especially abroad. Not only would you be charged for the devices, you’d have to pay for maps as well. Now your phone does it all for you – and generally for nothing.

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