By Christopher Elliott Travel columnist contributor
updated 5/24/2010 9:18:57 AM ET 2010-05-24T13:18:57

OK, so airline ticket prices never made much sense to begin with. But the latest shenanigans are so shocking that something has to be written about them.

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Talk with Teri Hurley, a travel agent from Austin, Texas, to get an idea of how confusing and counter-intuitive airline pricing has become. She likes to travel with her lapdogs, Pip and Isabella. “But the absurdity of in-cabin dog fees is that it can very well amount to more than your airline ticket, depending on the airline,” she says.

(That’s not an overstatement. After Delta Air Lines raised its pet fee from $75 to $150, I wrote about a passenger whose cat’s ticket cost more than his. Seriously.)

Hurley asked her airline if she could just buy a seat for her dogs, with the understanding that they’d stay in their carrier. “I was told no,” she says. “My solution? Book another airline.”

Indeed, more passengers seem to be running afoul of these funny fares than ever, and given that the prices often can’t be adequately explained — even by airline employees — their only choice is to take their business elsewhere. Or not to fly at all.

Just to be clear, airfares and ticketing rules began to lose touch with reality in 1978, after the U.S. airline industry was carelessly deregulated. The government used to set prices, which didn’t make sense. But it turns out that allowing airlines to set prices made even less sense.

Here are few recent examples of airfare absurdity, and how to make sure you don’t become a victim:

That’s an expensive connection
The flying distance between Frankfurt, Germany and Zagreb, Croatia is about 450 miles. Brian Cia, a manager for a transportation company in Cincinnati, was trying to book a flight to the former Yugoslav republic on the Lufthansa Web site, when he stumbled about an unusual price. “Lufthansa had direct service to Frankfurt from Portland — and even better, it was on sale for $500 roundtrip,” he says. But when he priced it out on the site with a connection to Zagreb, Lufthansa wanted a whopping $1,700. “That works out to $1,200 to get from Frankfurt to Zagreb, which is a two hour flight,” he says. That’s roughly $2.50 a mile.

Why the bizarre pricing? Because fares are set by sophisticated programs that predict demand and set them accordingly. They have nothing to do with distance, or logic. Cia booked the same tickets separately from Lufthansa, and saved $850. Go figure.

You crossed the ocean? You pay extra
Matt Cameron encountered an odd rule when he booked an around-the-world trip on Northwest Airlines last year. And he ought to know about rules — he’s a lawyer based in Boston. “It required me to pay double for a round-trip ticket which started and ended in the same city, simply because it ‘crossed two oceans’,” he says. Slideshow: Awful airlines

You can read more details on his blog about honeymooning in Siberia, in which he describes the agony of battling Northwest — an airline that has since been assimilated into Delta Air Lines — for an exception to the inexplicable round-the-world ticket rule. Not to spoil the ending, but it was denied, presumably because people like Cameron were willing to pay to cross an extra ocean or two.

Hey, that fee costs more than the ticket
United Airlines recently added a “co-pay” option to its upgrades for passengers using miles, “but the upgrade can cost more than the price of the actual ticket,” says Bonnie Friedman, a writer who is based in Maui. For example, she just booked a flight to New York for $796. The cost of an upgrade? About 30,000 miles — plus another $1,000 in “co-pays.” “I wrote to the CEO of United and I guess lots of other Hawaii residents did, too,” she says. “The co-pay was lowered to $600 — still, way too much for me.”

Charging more for the upgrade than for your ticket is strange, indeed. Awful nice of United to back down a little on the co-pay, but the idea of paying miles on top of money doesn’t really add up in my book.

Slideshow: Cartoons: Danger in the air

That walk-up fare makes me want to run away
Here’s another completely counter-intuitive fare trick. If you want to fly at the last minute, your ticket price soars. Airlines do this because big-spending business travelers have the money — specifically, their employers do — so they pay. It isn’t meant for people like Nina Boal, an applications computer programmer from Columbia, Md., who is disabled and missed her flight from Japan back home because one of her trains wasn’t wheelchair accessible. “When I bought a flight for the next day, instead of rebooking me for the same price as the missed flight, the price I had to pay for a one-way ticket was over $3,000,” she says. “That is absurd.”

She’s right, it is absurd. Too bad airlines entrap their customers with these kinds of price games — particularly those who can least afford to pay it.

Wait, these change fees negate the value of the entire ticket
Jordan Meher bought a flight from Mobile, Ala., to Chicago on US Airways to visit friends recently, but had to cancel his tickets. “Our one-way fare, including taxes and fees, was $264 for my wife and me,” he says. “At the time, I was told by US Airways that they could not refund the money, but would be keeping a ‘credit’ to be used within a year.” What the agent failed to mention is that there was a $150 per person change fee. So when he tried to book a new flight from Salt Lake City to Tampa, Fla., and saw a $250 fare, he found himself in a peculiar position: If he used the credit, he would negate much of its value after paying the change fee.

This kind of thing happens more often than you would think, and often, the best thing to do with a ticket credit is to toss it in the trash. Which, sadly, is exactly what the airlines want.

Although I think these airfare tricks are inexcusable, I can’t really blame the airlines for engaging in them. Yeah, stupid rules that double the price of your ticket are — well, stupid. Change fees and pet fees that make you wish you’d never booked a flight on a particular airline? Same thing. But airlines have their reasons.

It’s practically impossible to make money in the airline industry, so they have to resort to these bizarre rules and pricing systems to eke out a small profit. The big airlines that do this wish there were another way. But they claim there isn’t.

I don’t know. Maybe they haven’t tried hard enough.

Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. You can read more travel tips on his blog, or e-mail him at

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