If you're stuck in hospital or visiting a sick friend or relative, things can be difficult enough. But rip-off charges for everything from phone calls to parking can make the experience financially, as well as emotionally, draining.
I've had the misfortune to have a close relative in hospital for the past 10 days. The circumstances alone are bad enough but the experience has also introduced me to the another hospital rip-off: Patientline, a service which offers hospital patients a bedside telephone, TV and radio service.%VIRTUAL-SkimlinksPromo%
Calling a patient at a hospital
Because the hospital is a good hour's drive away from where I live I've been calling Patientline on a daily basis. Although staff are fairly relaxed about the use of mobile phones on the ward, the reception is so bad that calling Patientline is my only option if I want to speak to my family.
Each patient signed up to Patientline has a personal bedside phone number beginning 070, but calling this doesn't get you straight through to the patient. If only.
First, you have to listen to a long preamble explaining that you're calling a hospital and what this means ("Please remember whilst they [the patient] are in hospital they may be with medical staff or have difficulty in reaching the phone to answer your call so please be patient.") At the end of the message the exorbitant call charges – 50p a minute from a BT landline – are revealed.
The message is carefully scripted to be as long-winded as possible – I'd regurgitate it in full here but I'm limited by a strict word count. I timed it though, and the message is just short of 90 seconds.
It's an annoying waste of time but also one for which you pay at least 75p before you even speak to your friend or relative. And that's on BT – my phone provider Virgin Media charges 51.07p a minute plus a 14.94p connection charge for the call. This equates to 92p just to hear the recorded message.
According to Hospedia, Patientline's parent company, the message's "overall content is the result of a wide variety of feedback we have had over the years due to the relative unfamiliarity of 070 numbers." Hospedia says it's "working on ways to try and reduce the length of the message."
To help, I offered Hospedia an alternative script containing all the important information in just 10 seconds but its PR department haven't responded.
Patients' phone and TV costs
Patients themselves pay a mere 10p a minute for outgoing calls; a fraction of the inbound call costs but still a lot more than standard call charges. As for TV charges, because my relative is on the children's ward Patientline's TV service is free from 7am to 7pm. The prices for TV for adults aren't shown on Hospedia's website but a quick Google suggests pricing starts at £1 for two hours' TV or £10 a day.
Another common hospital rip-off is ever-increasing car parking charges. Figures from the Patients' Association shows that more than a quarter of hospital trusts in England increased car parking charges for patients and visitors in the year to last April.
Although some cut prices, others more than doubled them, according to data from 197 hospital and mental health trusts. The average cost of an hour's hospital parking across the UK is 77p, based on the average from a three-hour stay, but some trusts charge much more.
For example, Dorset County Hospital NHS Foundation Trust charges £1.60 for one hour, £2.10 for two and £4.20 for up to four.
Unsurprisingly hospital patients and visitors pay more in London; parking at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital NHS Foundation Trust costs £2.50 an hour on average, but up to £3.50 an hour in some cases.
Food and drink
Hospital patients and visitors also pay above the odds for snacks and drinks. Last month the Daily Star Sunday carried out some research into prices at restaurants, cafes and shops in NHS hospitals.
It found that hospitals across the UK are charging up to 50% more than supermarkets for cans of drink and confectionary.
For example, at St George's Hospital in Tooting, south-west London, cans of Coke and KitKats cost 80p each, compared to a maximum of 61p at the supermarket. Meanwhile, a can of 300ml Coke at Harrogate District Hospital, North Yorkshire cost 95p – almost double the cost of the same item in a supermarket.
Have you spotted other hospital rip-offs? Should the Government do something to prevent these? Share your thoughts in the Comments box below.
10 of the biggest consumer rip-offs
The worst hospital rip-offs
Using a mobile phone to make and receive calls, send texts and browse the web while abroad can be extremely costly – especially if you are travelling outside the European Union (EU), where calls can cost up to 10 times as much as at home.
To avoid high charges, Carphone Warehouse suggests tourists ensure a data cap is in place, use applications to check data usage, turn off 'data roaming', avoid data-intensive applications such as Google Maps and YouTube and use wi-fi spots to update social networking sites.
Payment Protection Insurance (PPI) is supposed to help people to continue meeting their loan, mortgage or credit card repayments if they fall ill or lose their jobs. However, policies are often over-priced, riddled with exclusions and sold to people who could not make a claim if they needed to.
At one point, sale of this cover - which was often included automatically in loan repayments - was estimated to boost the banks' profits by up to £5 billion a year.
Now, though, consumers who were mis-sold PPI can fight back by complaining to the bank or lender concerned and taking their case to the Financial Ombudsman Service (08000 234567) should the response prove unsatisfactory.
It could be you, but let's face it, it probably won't be. In fact, buying a ticket for the Lotto only gives you a 1 in 13.9 million chance of winning the jackpot.
With odds like that, you would almost certainly be better off hanging on to your cash and saving it in a high-interest account.
No-frills airlines such as EasyJet may promote rock-bottom prices on their websites. But the overall fare you pay can be surprisingly high once extras such as luggage and credit card payment fees have been added - a process known as drip pricing.
Taking one piece of hold baggage on a return EasyJet flight, for example, adds close to £20 to the cost of your flight, while paying by credit card increases the price by a further £10.
It may therefore be worth comparing the total cost with that of a flight with a standard airline such as British Airways.
Cash advances, which include cash withdrawals, are generally charged at a much higher rate of interest than standard purchases.
While the average credit card interest rate is around 17%, a typical cash withdrawal of £500, for example, is charged at more than 26%.
What's more, as the interest accrues from the date of the transaction, rather than the next payment date, costs will mount up even if you clear your balance in full with your next payment.
Supermarkets such as Tesco and Asda often run promotions under which you can, for example, get three products for the price of two.
However, it is only worth taking advantage of these deals if you will actually use the products. Otherwise, you are simply buying for the sake of it, which is a waste of your hard-earned cash.
Buy a train ticket at the station on the day of travel and the price is likely to give you a shock - especially if you are travelling a long distance at a busy time of day.
However, you can cut the cost of train travel by 50% or more by going online and making the purchase beforehand - especially if you book 12 weeks in advance, which is when the cheapest tickets are on sale.
Other ways to reduce the price you pay include avoiding peak times and taking advantage of so-called carnet tickets, which allow you to buy, for example, 12 journeys for the price of 10.
Most High Street banks offer packaged accounts that come with monthly fees ranging from £6.50 up to as much as £40, with a typical account charging about £15 per month.
Various benefits, such as travel insurance and mobile phone insurance, are offered in return for this fee. But whether or not it is worth paying for them depends on your individual circumstances.