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Rising fuel costs drilling into traveler's wallets
WITH gas prices approaching $5 a gallon, the open road looks less inviting than ever. But even vacationers who fly, cruise or take transit will find it tough to escape the tsunami of high oil prices surging through the travel industry.
Airlines, cruise lines, taxis and other conveyances are raising fares and adding fuel surcharges. Here's a look at what to expect and how to keep costs down:
Airlines: Fares are heading for the stratosphere, and no wonder. With jet-fuel prices recently running about 68% higher than a year earlier, airlines are hurting. For many of them, fuel has overtaken labor costs as their No. 1 expense.
This spring, big U.S. airlines increased fares more than a dozen times in five weeks. Depending on the carrier, you'll also find new charges for checked bags, beverages and other services.
Cruises: It's no longer smooth sailing for cruise lines, which mostly avoided fuel surcharges in 2004-05 during the last big run-up in oil prices. Today nearly all the major ships add a "fuel supplement" of $5 or more per person per day.
In 2005, fuel wasn't a big part of cruise lines' costs, some representatives said. Not any more.
"Fuel is a huge operating expense for us, and it has been escalating at an extraordinarily profound rate," said Jennifer de la Cruz, spokeswoman for Carnival Corp., the world's biggest cruise conglomerate, which runs a dozen lines.
In January through March this year, Carnival paid nearly 80% more for fuel than it did in the same period last year. In November, it added a fuel supplement of $5 per person per day, since raised to $9, for passengers on Carnival Cruise Lines, Holland America Line, Princess Cruises, Cunard Line and Yachts of Seabourn.
Locally, Catalina Express, a ferry service to Santa Catalina Island, last month increased fares by 8% to offset higher fuel expenses.
Taxis and airport shuttles: You can expect taxi fares to increase this summer in Los Angeles and elsewhere to help cover fuel costs. Drivers, who last got a rate increase in January 2007, are "really hurting out there," said Tom Drischler, taxicab administrator for Los Angeles.
He said last week that he planned to recommend a rate increase, probably around 10%, to the Board of Taxicab Commissioners when it meets next month. One-way taxi fares from LAX to downtown are set at $42.
Drischler said the city had abandoned fuel surcharges, which it authorized during prior cost run-ups.
"Surcharges tend to confuse customers and do not please drivers, who believe the surcharge may come out of their tips," he said.
SuperShuttle International in Scottsdale, Ariz., which runs shared-ride services at 28 airports, increased fares by $1 to $3 last summer, depending on the location, spokesman Ken Testani said: "As fuel costs increase, we may need again to increase our fares."
Buses: A bright spot, of sorts. Dallas-based Greyhound Lines Inc., which claims to be the nation's largest scheduled inter-city bus carrier, so far doesn't plan another increase after it raised fares by 3% in April, spokesman Dustin Clark said.
Tips for saving: Book early and seek out special gas deals.
Prices are in constant flux. For instance, NCL Corp., which operates Norwegian Cruise Line, imposed a fuel supplement of $7 per person per day in December, raised it to $9 on May 1 and again to $11 for reservations made on or after Friday. And airfares change even more frequently.
The sooner you book and pay, the more likely you are to avoid the next price increase. Check with your tour or cruise company; some may guarantee your price once you make a trip deposit or pay in full.
If you're driving, look for hotels that give you up to $50 to offset gas costs. You'll find these deals on their websites and in newspaper ads, among other places. Make sure you really are saving money by checking the "deal" against regular room rates, and read the fine print on restrictions.