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The cost of flying doesn’t end with the airfare these days

Times Staff Writer

AirFARES may be at historic lows, but that doesn’t mean it’s cheap to fly. Taxes and extra charges can add substantially to a journey.

A $260 round-trip coach ticket, for instance, can become $300 with taxes and fees, depending on which airports you use and how many stops you make. And that’s just the start.

Did you book by phone? Add $5. Need to change your nonrefundable itinerary? Add $100. Got a third bag to check? Add $80. Hungry? Hand over $10 for dinner, cash only.

The tab so far: $495. Figure in airport parking for a few days, and the trip’s real cost may be twice the $260 fare.

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Even award tickets aren’t free any longer (more on that later).

There are several reasons for this “fee creep.” Stepped-up security after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks has been costly.

Major carriers, which are under pressure from low-cost competitors, are having trouble raising fares enough to cover their increasing costs, including sky-high fuel prices. So they add on fees.

Don’t expect any relief soon. But by being aware of the extras, you can budget for them and sometimes avoid them. Among the taxes and fees:

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* Ticket taxes. If you paid $200 for a round-trip ticket, about $50 may have gone to taxes, according to the Air Transport Assn. (The exact amount depends on your itinerary.) Overall, these taxes are up 250% since 1988, the trade group recently told Congress.

The federal government imposes a 7.5% passenger ticket tax, a segment fee of $3.10 for each leg of a flight and a security service fee capped at $10 per round trip. The first two help finance the Federal Aviation Administration, and the third, the newest, funds the Transportation Security Administration.

Most airports impose a passenger facility charge that you pay each time you pass through, to finance runways, safety improvements and other projects. Congress raised the limit three years ago, and now more than 200 of the nation’s 500-plus airports, including Los Angeles International, charge the maximum, $4.50.

Airports in Honolulu, Las Vegas and Pittsburgh are among those that have recently initiated or raised this charge; John Wayne Airport in Orange County is considering it. Expect more increases as troubled big airlines weaken their hub systems and pull back from funding airport projects.

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* Booking fees: Because online bookings cost less to process, airlines a few years ago began giving passengers discounts when they bought tickets on their websites. That was the carrot.

This year brought the stick.

Except for some low-cost carriers, most major airlines charge $5 to book by telephone and $5 or $10 at ticket offices and airport counters. Booking online with the carrier can help you avoid this charge.

* Change fees: If you cancel or change your flight dates after buying a nonrefundable low fare, most major airlines will charge you $100, plus any fare difference on the new flight, for domestic tickets and more for international ones. Plan carefully or fly low-cost carriers, such as Southwest and JetBlue, which have more generous policies.

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* Excess baggage: Two years ago, Delta, on one day’s notice, began charging $40 for checking a third bag. It still charges that, and some airlines, such as Continental and United, charge $80. Airlines have also cracked down on bags that are too big or heavy. Standards and penalties vary, so spare yourself money and aggravation: Check with the airline, by phone if necessary.

* Food: This once was free in coach and still is on some flights. But more carriers have begun buy-on-board programs; meals are typically $6 to $10. On US Airways, purchasing meals is the only option for domestic coach passengers. Pack a lunch or pick up food to go at the airport.

* Unaccompanied minors: Children are charged extra when they travel without an adult. The age limit is typically around 12, but it varies by airline. These fees, which three years ago hovered around $30, are now often $40 or more each way for domestic flights and more for foreign travel.

* Awards and upgrades: Frequent fliers haven’t been spared in the recent fee onslaught.

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“There’s a nickel-and-diming campaign going on,” said Tim Winship, editor and publisher of FrequentFlier.com.

The new fees for non-Web bookings are being applied to award tickets too. United charges more to book award travel by phone than to book revenue tickets by phone: $15 versus $5. Many airlines apply change fees to award tickets.

Some carriers have also stretched the definition of a “rush” award ticket to two weeks before the flight, instead of a week, Winship said. As a result, more people are paying last-minute fees that run $50 or more.

Starting Dec. 1, American plans to charge $250 each way for frequent fliers who want to upgrade to business class from a deeply discounted coach fare on an international flight. That’s in addition to 25,000 miles required for the upgrade. Full-fare coach passengers won’t pay the fee.

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“The disparity between the discount and the premium-class fares was just too great,” said Tim Wagner, a spokesman for American. He said the fee was better than barring upgrades from discount tickets, which several other carriers do.

Dodging frequent-flier fees can require shopping around. If you haven’t looked at the fees attached to your favorite program lately, look now. They may have changed. Another option: Check out the low-cost carriers. Their rules often are more liberal.

One of the most annoying aspects of the new fees: Finding out about them in advance can be tough. Some airlines’ websites either bury them or appear to omit them entirely. My advice: Buy your ticket online to avoid booking fees, but don’t forget about the airline’s toll-free phone line. It may be the only way to learn about those other charges.

Hear more tips from Jane Engle on Travel Insider topics at www.latimes.com/engle. She welcomes comments but can’t respond individually to letters and calls. Write to Travel Insider, Los Angeles Times, 202 W. 1st St., Los Angeles, CA 90012, or e-mail jane.engle@latimes .com.

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