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!
The "unbundling" of airfares is most fully realized on Spirit and Allegiant, carriers that are marginal for business travelers. They charge for things you don't think about: using a credit card, carrying on the government-allowed two bags, or requesting an in-flight soft drink.

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.

Car-rental roulette
Given that most of us consider rental cars the ultimate business-travel commodity, we assume all firms charge roughly the same prices. Not true at all. One example: Avis quoted $385 for a two-day economy-class rental this week at Chicago/O'Hare. Advantage, a smaller firm that works just off the airport, was charging $94. I got that comparison from Orbitz.com, which listed nine rental firms at O'Hare. But that doesn't mean I got a complete snapshot of O'Hare rentals. Why? Orbitz doesn't display the prices of Enterprise Holdings, the world's largest rental organization, which rents cars under the National, Alamo and Enterprise brands. So what did we learn? Always compare rental firms -- and always know that you're getting the full spread of prices from all the competitors.

The code-share conundrum
For decades, airlines have slapped their "code" -- a unique two-character identifier -- on aircraft and flights operated by other carriers. But just because airlines share flights does not mean they charge the same fare for the same flight. In fact, prices may vary by hundreds of dollars in coach -- and sometimes thousands in premium class. Explaining why this happens takes days. Instead, focus on avoiding the trap. Whenever you're quoted a fare for a code-share flight, don't book until you've checked the price offered by the operating carrier. Airlines are required by law to disclose code-share flights. Just look at the "flight details" section of any price quote.

Resorting to resort fees
Although the nightly rates at hotels are rising with the improving economy, lodging remains a comparative bargain because the industry is building new properties at an impressive pace. But the hotel industry is also adopting an airline mentality. For years, they hid price increases at resorts in a so-called "resort fee," a mandatory daily upcharge that putatively covered things like use of the pool or beach towels or some such absurdity. Sadly, in-city hotels are beginning to experiment with similar charges, tacking on a few extra bucks a night for things you didn't ask for: bottled water in your room, local calls or even the newspaper slipped under your door. To defeat these fees, follow two procedures. Before locking in a reservation, examine the boilerplate carefully and make sure resort or other fees are not mentioned. Then print out a copy of the reservation. If confronted with an upcharge upon check out, refuse to pay, show your proof and demand it be removed from the bill.

Don't ask and they won't tell
Airlines, hotels, and car-rental firms are masters of limited disclosure. The travel industry economy is based on discounts off the theoretic "full retail price," so there are any number of deals you can find based on age, affinity groups and corporate connections. But travel websites almost never tell you about the discounts unless you specifically ask for them. How do you circumvent the don't-ask, don't-tell trickery? You probably don't know all of the discounts for which you qualify, but start asking questions when you see a box that says "promo code" or "corporate ID." They are telltale signs that there are deals to be had. Before booking, try a Google search for discount codes. The Web is chockablock with sites that publish the not-so-secret codes that will unlock substantial savings.

Knock-knock, not funny
Several years ago, a master of "distribution" -- travel-industry jargon for the selling process -- warned me that business travelers would soon be asking the wrong question about prices. "It's not 'How Much?' anymore," he told me. "Now the question is 'Who's asking?' because airlines and hotels are going to show you prices based on what they know about you."

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
When you think of the word class, you think of first, coach, or business. In other words, the types of in-flight services that an airline offers. But there is another kind of class: the "fare class," industry jargon for the types of prices it charges and the purchase restrictions imposed. On any given flight, there are dozens of "fare classes" within each category of in-flight service. And here's the nasty reality: If you book a higher fare class on one leg of your journey, the computers default to the same fare class on all other segments of your trip. This so-called class mapping could add hundreds, sometimes thousands, of dollars to a multiflight itinerary.

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
Lorenz Hart lyrics notwithstanding, business travelers rarely have a choice of where they go. But when we go is often in our control. And long before Uber "created" surge pricing, the travel industry adjusted rates based on demand. Sometimes juggling your travel by a day or two yields fantastic savings. For airfares, use the monthly pricing matrix available at ITA Software. You'll be stunned by the fare swings. For hotels, if you're quoted a rate that seems high, price out your stay on a daily basis. The chain's website may be defaulting you to the highest daily rate during your entire stay. You may save by booking nights independently or moving your visit by a day or two.

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.