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Entries during 2011-10

Taxes & Fees

Q. Would you please give us a breakdown of all the taxes that are added to airline fees? I can't think of any other service/product you can buy for which the taxes can almost double the total price. What's up with that?

A. Well, for starters, there's a federal segment fee for each takeoff. So depending on whether you choose a non-stop or a connecting flight, the fee will change. The number of connections changes this fee as well.

Facility fees charged by the airports. These vary depending on the specific airports that are included in your itinerary. And again, the more connections, the more fees.

The TSA charges a security fee and that varies depending on the airport.

The airline itself can charge fees, including a fuel surcharge. Theoretically, you're supposed to see this in the base price, but anecdotal evidence suggests that this not always the case.

For international travel, there are additional US government taxes, and you can be sure that immigration, customs and the government of your destination country will be sure to take a cut too. This can result in the "sticker shock" of seeing your ticket double in price (sometimes even more!) when all the extras are added up.

Booking for baby with miles

Q. Is there a charge for infants (under 2 years of age) to fly with me if I book a ticket using my miles?  I have United MileagePlus points, and I cannot find the answer anywhere.  Even the airline’s customer service representatives will not give me a straight answer.

A. Not for a domestic ticket as long as the child sits in your lap. However on international flights, airlines typically charge 10% of the "applicable adult fare" and sometimes add fuel surcharges, so it can be quite costly.

Thanksgiving Travel: Why so high?

Q. Why are the airlines allowed to get away with price gouging during the holidays? Flights that were $300 a month ago are now $800 or more during Thanksgiving week... it's awful. The airlines are capitalizing on people's desire to spend the holidays with their families.

A. Airfares always go up for holiday travel. Peak holiday fares will be at least 10 percent higher this season than last, and will be even more pricey on some routes. It's all due to the airlines having cut tens of thousands of seats for the holiday season and because of airline mergers. Delta no longer competes with Northwest because they're the same airline now. Southwest doesn't compete with ATA and Airtran because it bought them. Continental and United are one, as are Midwest Airlines and Frontier. Despite the higher costs, adjusted for inflation, airfares are lower now than they were 20 or 30 years ago. No wonder the airlines have lost billions over the last decade: they're selling the product for less than it costs them to provide it. And, of course, it's all about supply and demand. With fewer seats, airlines can charge what the market will bear. To save money on Thanksgiving travel, consider taking an early flight on Thanksgiving Day and returning the Saturday after the holiday rather than on Sunday. It's always possible that fares will come down just before the holidays, so be sure to check often and sign up for free emailed airfare alerts.

Size & Weight Limits for Carry-ons

Q. I haven't traveled in a while and will only be taking carry on luggage with me. Is there a weight and size limit? Also, I noticed that airlines now charge baggage fees. Does American charge a fee?

A. While there is no weight limit on carry on bags, all airlines have a size limit for bags taken into the cabin. In general, you're allowed to carry on one bag measuring no more than 22 inches long by 14 inches wide by 9 inches tall, plus one small "personal item" such as a pocketbook or laptop case. On American, that personal item must not exceed 36 inches in overall dimensions and should fit under the seat in front of you. American charges for checked bags; Southwest lets you check two bags for free as long as they don't weigh over 50 pounds; JetBlue gives you the first checked bag free; and only Spirit also charges for carry on bags unless they're small enough to fit under the seat in front of you. 

No fee if you buy at the airport? Who does that?

Q. I'm flying from San Diego to Las Vegas on Spirit Airlines and noticed that they charge $18 per ticket to use their website for booking flights, but it appears that you can buy the ticket at the airport and avoid the fee? This seems counter-intuitive. How many people actually bother to drive to the airport to buy the ticket?

A. Probably not many. After all, it's a hassle and you'll probably end up paying a parking fee. Spirit knows this. However, since some Spirit fares are actually $18 round-trip plus tax, the online booking fee ends up doubling the price of the fare. I suppose if you're buying multiple tickets or traveling with a group, then it's worthwhile to buy at the airport.

Pay-to-pick seating trickery

Q. I am flying United this week and just checked in online. I was forced to buy an "Economy Plus" seat with extra legroom because there were no remaining seats in regular economy. This is the second time this has happened to me with United, but it has never happened with other airlines. I fly nearly every week and I am about to cross United off my list of airlines. Is there any way around this in the future if I have to fly United?

A. This is a growing problem not just with United but also with other airlines, such as US Airways, that sell "premium economy" seats for an extra fee. One method is to not choose a seat assignment when checking in online. You'll probably get the extra legroom seat for free, but you won't be able to choose your exact seat location, meaning that you might end up in a middle seat. But you'll avoid the extra fee.

Give an Inch, Gate Check a Mile

Q. I just bought a 21x15x8.5 sized carry-on...while most airlines seem to allow a total of 45 inches, I'm reading some airline's carry-on sizers (such as AA) are 22x14x9. Will my extra inch on one side get me in trouble or am I worrying too much?

A. Nah, you should be in the clear. Usually, it only matters if your flight is packed to the gills and everyone's bringing carry-ons onboard. We're always amazed at the size of some of the bags people lug aboard the plane. That's when they'll start looking for reasons to gate check you. Of course, even if you're well within their stated size that's still no guarantee that you're baggage will be allowed onboard if there's no room in the overheads. Whenever possible, we try to keep things small enough to fit under the seat in front of us, to avoid overheads entirely.     

Listen or break the law?

Q. Every time I fly, I'm reminded that it's a violation of Federal law to disobey "crew member instructions." One of these instructions, often from the captain herself (or himself) is to listen carefully to the pre-flight safety demo. Yet, every time I fly, the vast majority of passengers are reading a newspaper or yakking away with fellow passengers, completely oblivious to the flight attendants standing right in front of them trying to refresh their memories of what do to in an emergency. Why is this particular "instruction" legally allowed to be ignored?

A. I agree that it's not only dangerous, but actually rude and disrespectful when passengers don't pay attention to the safety demo. It might help if airlines use humor to grab passengers' attention, as happens often on Southwest Airlines' flights. It's amazing how many people really don't know how to act when there's an emergency. One flight attendant told me that during an emergency decompression situation she had to instruct passengers individually that they needed to pull the mask towards them to start the flow of oxygen, something they would have known had they listened to the pre-flight announcement. It wouldn't bother me one bit if the government required people to put down their newspapers and magazines during the safety demo.

Trip Insurance from a Tour Operator?

Q. My daughter is going on a school trip to Europe. The tour organizer has requested $147.00 for insurance, but we can opt out if we wish. Do you think this is necessary?

A. It's hard for me to say if the insurance is a wise choice without looking at the policy, since there are often some glaring loopholes. In general, it's never a good idea to buy trip insurance directly from a tour operator. If that outfit goes out of business, you won't get your money back. Far better to use a third party insurer such as Access America or TravelGuard. And it really depends on the cost of the tour. If it's several thousand dollars and you can't afford to lose that kind of money in the event your daughter becomes ill before traveling or has to cancel for some other reason, then I'd buy the insurance. Also, what if your daughter becomes injured while abroad and needs hospitalization? Does your health insurance policy cover foreign hospitals? And what if she needs to be medically evacuated back to the U.S.? That could cost up to $100,000 in some cases, so make sure that any insurance policy you buy covers medical transportation. Not trying to scare you, but these are things to consider.

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