Airline surcharges

Traveling over the holidays is often a tedious and frustrating process… If you’re driving, you’ve got to deal with congested roads, oftentimes long bouts of time in the car (which can make anyone cranky), and if you’re like me, the inevitability of something going wrong with your car. Or if you’re traveling by air, you have to deal with crowded airports, screaming kids on airplanes, cancelled or delayed flights, and limited options when choosing flight times.

And now, air travelers need to be wary of hidden surcharges added AFTER the fare has been quoted.

Yes, this evening I came across an enlightening article online, which detailed the airline industry practice of adding surcharges for peak travel days. Purchasing airfare for travel around Thanksgiving or Christmas is likely to be more expensive this year due to some of these fees. (And not just the holidays — some airlines are adding a whopping $50 surcharge to flights on February 8th, which has no federal “holiday” status but coincidentally is the day after the Super Bowl.)

So why are the airlines going this route, rather than simply increasing their fare? It turns out that for an airline to increase their quoted rate for a flight, they have to file paperwork with the Airline Tariff Publishing Co., which involves paperwork and bureaucratic red tape, etc. Actual published increases are also subject to discounts with third party companies, sales, and so on. Having an added fee tacked on at the end of the billing process, on the other hand, doesn’t require that effort and isn’t subject to discounts.

It also stands a pretty good chance of being missed by the average consumer. Most of us don’t know what to expect from government taxes and fees relating to travel… we price shop by comparing the quoted fares. So if we’re not paying attention, we might not be getting quite the competitive deal that we thought we were.

Fortunately, there are some easy ways to avoid getting taken by surprise… First, make sure you’re comparing the TOTAL PRICE at the end of the booking process, right before you put in your credit card info. That way you’re comparing apples-to-apples and don’t get misled by a seemingly better fare that has higher fees at the end. Another option is to use third-party travel websites (I’m a big fan of Kayak.com but have used Expedia.com and Orbitz.com without problems) because they often quote total-cost of a ticket, including taxes and fees.

In the end, a five or ten dollar surcharge isn’t likely to deter me from flying. Inconveniences and irritations aside, I like traveling by air — it’s quick, it doesn’t require me to overuse my beat up ol’ car, and frankly it makes me feel all grown up and fancy. (Not to mention that I am a “preferred flyer” with US Airways so I get free upgrades and such, which appeals to my yuppie nature.) But still, I found it to be an interesting revelation, and figured I’d share.

I guess this just means I need to indulge in an extra free cocktail or two the next time I’m upgraded, so I can feel like I’m getting my money’s worth.

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