FIGHTING THE TRAVEL FEE MACHINE
By Joe Brancatelli
April 17, 2014 --Even by the Orwellian standards of U.S. airlines, the industry's latest legislative parry is dystopian: It is now booming the Transparent Airfares Act, which would make prices more opaque by allowing carriers to advertise phony "base" fares that don't include government taxes or carrier-imposed surcharges.
The legislation hopes to roll back the Department of Transportation regulations that require airlines to advertise only all-inclusive prices. The DOT rules have been hailed by business travelers and consumer groups and survived court challenges at all levels. But they infuriate Airlines for America, the industry lobbying group once known as the Air Transport Association.
Why are airlines dyspeptic and mounting a full-court press for the Transparent Airfares Act? They don't want you to know the full price of flying and they are afraid that the DOT may one day disallow "unbundling," the industry practice of charging for products and services that were once part of an airline ticket.
None of this surprises you, right? The true cost of business travel always has been a metaphoric iceberg. Most charges are below the surface, out of plain sight and dangerously destructive to your budget.
How do you keep travel spending under control? Here are my current best tips for avoiding the ups, extras and dollar games the travel industry has perfected.
Apples and Oranges and Bundles, oh my!
But so-called mainline carriers have unbundled, too. All now charge for checked bags, a decent seat assignment, the right to board aircraft quickly or even to stand by for another flight. And American Airlines last week made the curious decision to charge full-fare coach passengers a separate checked-bag fee even though it includes a free bag on some cheaper fares. In contrast, JetBlue Airways includes a free bag and in-flight television in its fares. Southwest Airlines allows two free bags -- and doesn't charge ticket-change fees, which cost as much as $200 on other carriers.
This confusing panoply of fees adds billions to airline bottom lines(PDF). Before you buy any ticket, make sure you don't confuse apples and oranges and you know exactly what is bundled into your price. You should also know which credit cards come with waivers of some of those fees.
The code-share conundrum
Resorting to resort fees
Don't ask and they won't tell
Knock-knock, not funny
That scary knock-knock scenario has come to pass. When you go to a website inquiring about prices, the travel industry increasingly asks you to identify yourself and then tailors its offerings to what it knows about you. Delta Air Lines, for example, recently admitted business travelers who logged into Delta.com with a SkyMiles frequent-flyer account were quoted higher fares than casual Web surfers. Orbitz.com has admitted "data mining" and showing higher-priced hotels to Mac users than travelers using Windows-based machines. Business travelers have noted plenty of other odd pricing discrepancies over the years, too.
Solution: Always dump your cookies between visits to travel websites. Always compare prices as a logged-in user and a "guest." And always compare against third-party sites such as Kayak.
The class-mapping trap
Avoiding this trap isn't easy. One way is to price each flight segment individually and compare the total price to the combined, all-in-one fare that the computer suggests you must pay for the journey. But that's time-consuming--and you're playing a complicated game of chicken with airline pricing computers that are specifically programmed to outwit you. A better approach is to rely on a savvy human travel agent to book more complicated trips. They have ways of finessing the reservation computers and "forcing" them to generate the lowest price on each flight segment.
Not where, when
ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.
THE FINE PRINT This column is Copyright © 2014 American City Business Journals. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2014 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.