Travel

The scoop on airline taxes, changing travel dates and more

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Some answers to readers' airline questions:

Question: I understand that London's Heathrow Airport has a horrendous arrival fee. Is the same true for Stansted and Gatwick, London's two other airports?

Answer: I'm not sure if you're referring to the airport landing fee, which is assessed based on the size of the aircraft and does vary from airport to airport but is paid directly by the airline, or Britain's air passenger duty, which is, essentially, a tax levied on airline tickets and varies depending on the class of service (economy or premium) and the length of the flight, not the airport. This tax is paid directly by the passenger and has been steadily increasing.

When introduced in 1994, it was 10 pounds. On a flight from the eastern U.S. to Britain and return, it's 67 pounds (about $103 at current exchange rates) in economy and 134 pounds ($205) in business or first class. On a round-trip flight from Los Angeles to London it's 83 pounds ($127) and 166 pounds ($254), respectively. These rates are set to increase April 1.

That's in addition to taxes imposed by the U.S. government and the Transportation Security Administration. If you're wondering why flights to Britain are so expensive compared with those of years past, that's one reason. By the way, Northern Ireland airports, such as Belfast, are exempt from the tax at present.

Question: Is it possible to buy an airline ticket without knowing the exact date of travel? I'm wondering if I can purchase a ticket ahead of time and decide later when I was going to fly.

Answer: You can always purchase a ticket and change the dates of travel, but the fare may change (either up or down) for travel on the date on which you decide to fly, and in most cases the cheapest fares will also require a change fee ($150 on a domestic fare on most U.S.-based airlines, $250 on international) if you change dates.

Of course, you can buy an expensive fully refundable fare and change the dates all you want, but I'm guessing that's not what you had in mind. You can also purchase an airfare on Southwest Airlines, which doesn't charge a change fee, but again, the fare on your new dates of travel may be higher or lower than the fare you originally bought. (You'll either pay the difference if higher, or get a travel voucher for future travel if lower).

American Airlines now sells a fare upgrade called Choice Essential (www.lat.ms/108iE5o) that allows you to change your travel dates without a fee but requires you to pay extra if the fare changes on your new dates of travel. Choice Essential fares cost $68 above regular fares but also include a checked bag round trip and priority boarding.

Question: I read that Virgin America will honor price drops after purchase but before travel with a $75 change fee. My flight to Edinburgh, Scotland, dropped by $100 but when I called for a credit voucher good for future travel they denied me because I had purchased non-refundable tickets. Anything you can do about this?

Answer: If you were flying to Scotland, it was on Virgin Atlantic, not Virgin America. Although the two airlines have a business relationship, Virgin Atlantic, like many foreign-based carriers, does not issue refunds on non-refundable fares when there's a price drop after you buy. By the way, Virgin America upped its fee to $100 effective in July, and United and US Airways recently upped their change fees from $150 to $200 on domestic fares.

Question: I will be flying on United Airlines from a U.S. airport to an international destination with a connection in Houston. If my luggage is lost, would domestic or international lost luggage compensation rules apply?

Answer: Even though you began your trip in the U.S. and connected within the U.S., your trip would be considered an international itinerary. International lost luggage compensation, which is typically lower than domestic compensation, would apply. Domestic compensation tops out at $3,300. Compensation for luggage lost on an international flight is capped at 1,000 Special Drawing Rights, a currency established by the International Monetary Fund and governed by the Montreal Convention. One SDR is equal to USD $1.50, so your maximum compensation would be $1,500. On most airlines, you can buy additional excess baggage valuation (typically up to $5,000 of coverage) for a reasonable fee when you check your bags.

travel@latimes.com

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