With the Transportation Security Administration increasing its fees and airlines charging extra for everything from seats to bags, flying has become an even costlier proposition, especially for families.
George Hobica, founder of Airfarewatchdog.com, recently discussed the range of fees travelers now face, how to minimize them and where to find the few silver linings in the increasingly unfriendly skies this summer. Following are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Q: Last month, the TSA’s increase in its Sept. 11 passenger security fee took effect. What does that mean for travelers?
A: The fee used to be $2.50 for a nonstop flight or $5 for a connecting flight. Now it’s $5.60, and if you have a layover for more than four hours domestically, or 12 hours internationally, you’ll have to pay another $5.60.
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Q: What other fees should travelers look out for?
A: The airlines are enforcing carry-on bag sizes like they have never done before. Which means that the carry-on bag you’d taken on flights for years may not be allowed anymore. The problem is not just the fee, but that you might be sent back to check-in. People have missed their flights because of that. I see it all the time, especially in big airports.
Also, some international airlines will weigh your checked-in baggage, and the fees can be quite severe. I always recommend that you pack a nylon tote just in case you discover you have to carry some things onto the flight.
Q: What about families?
A: Airlines are being more restrictive with premium seating, reserving seats with extra legroom or an aisle, for example, for their best customers or people willing to pay extra. What we’re finding is that people traveling with small kids or with elderly parents, the only two seats they find together are in the premium, more expensive seat class. They feel compelled to pay that $40 or $50 fee, and they’re resentful.
You can call ahead and try to request seats together. Some airlines like British Airways do not charge the premium-seat fee if you’re traveling with children of a certain age. The alternative is once you’re on the plane, you can bribe people with Starbucks gift cards.
Q: Is there any good news?
A: Well, if you waited to book a late-summer vacation, now is a great time to do it. From Aug. 18, after the kids start to go back to college, through the start of Thanksgiving, fares go way down, except over holiday weekends. Even with all the consolidation that’s been going on, some airlines are putting pressure on traditional airlines for certain routes. Frontier Airlines has become an ultra-low-cost carrier that’s expanding like crazy. I just noticed that on flights from Dallas to Phoenix, for example, American Airlines was charging as low, dollar to dollar, as Spirit Airlines. If you consider the fees on Spirit, that makes it better for you to fly on American.
Q: When’s the best time to buy tickets?
A: There’s no magic day or hour. Not Tuesday, not Wednesday. Never was. Fares change all the time, minute to minute, especially now that people can put airfares on a 24-hour hold without penalty.
I know I’m tooting our own horn, but really the best thing to do is to sign up for airfare alerts by email or Twitter.