Those brave enough to fly this summer already know the headaches awaiting them: $2 on-board beverages, exorbitant fuel fees, cranky flight attendants and eliminated flights, just to name a few. There's only one way to survive it all.
"You just need to change your behavior," says FareCompare.com CEO Rick Seaney. "There's no reason to quit flying."
So, no more procrastination when making travel plans — and don't even try to evade the "luggage police," who will be out in full force this summer, singling out fliers attempting to sneak on an extra suitcase to avoid paying new baggage fees.
Instead, passengers must adapt to the new realities of air travel. This includes everything from developing a good trigger finger when purchasing fares (or risk losing the deal), to reading up on the latest fees and getting to the airport prepared to shell out extra cash.
Travelers who evolve sooner, rather than later, can hang onto their most cherished possessions: money and sanity.
Fares and fees
It's no secret that the price of flying changes much more frequently than it once did. Airlines struggling to stay profitable amid the increasing cost of oil have turned to fare hikes, fuel surcharges and added fees.
In 2007, domestic airlines attempted to increase fares 23 times, according to FareCompare.com. As of July 3, airlines had tried to increase fares 21 times, with fares rising anywhere from $10 to $50 each time the hike was successful.
"They're playing a game of chicken," says Seaney of the fare increases, "and it's a mad experiment right now." To get the best fares, travelers should start shopping about four months in advance, recommends Seaney. Which means searching for holiday flights should commence now.
(One exception to the shopping-early rule is for fliers traveling between cities where service might be cut. If your route is eliminated you'll get a refund, but the new itinerary could involve more flights and expensive overnight stays.)
Those who have procrastinated can resort to flexibility. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays are the least expensive and least crowded times to fly, as are Thanksgiving and Christmas. This can often save travelers between $100 and $200 per flight.
Another way airlines have responded to high oil prices is by cutting capacity. Industry experts expect capacity to drop by 10% to 12% by this fall. Fares from small and mid-size towns will be affected the most, with the latter already seeing price increases of 7 to 12 percent. Large cities, on the other hand, won't suffer as much.
Deals are still possible, however, especially in cities where low-budget airlines like Southwest and AirTran force other companies to offer more competitive fares. Bargain hunters should also look for deals on new routes. Though they are mostly on the international front, airlines push promotional prices on these routes for the first few months.
But fliers who have managed to score a decent deal can lose their savings to fees. From pets to oversized or extra bags, fees add up quickly, making any earlier savings evaporate. To keep abreast of the fees, which seem to proliferate daily, check out FareCompare.com's comprehensive chart, and don't forget to budget for unplanned charges.
Simplifying your trip
To make summer traveling smoother, neutralize the problem before it begins. If luggage is a persistent problem, try shipping it in advance. UPS and FedEx will ship bags if they are properly packed and boxed, but this requires involved paperwork. More expensive services like Luggage Forward and Luggage Free take care of the pesky details.
The cost, which can range anywhere from $100 to several hundred dollars depending on the timing, weight and distance, will likely exceed the airlines' fees. Still, it means relief from potential drama with lost baggage.
As Joe Brancatelli, editor of the business travel Web site JoeSentMe.com, says: "To be intelligent as a business traveler you need to balance time, cost and convenience."
Brancatelli has a couple of tested recommendations for business and leisure travelers alike. First, befriend the management at a frequented hotel and take advantage of rewards programs that raise your profile as a loyal customer. This often translates into special attention in urgent situations — assistance when a flight has been canceled, for example — and routine perks like late check-out, room upgrades and check-cashing privileges.
Brancatelli also suggests that fliers lacking elite status with certain airlines purchase a Priority Pass that provides access to airport lounges. For a $99 annual fee, fliers can buy a membership to over 500 airport lounges around the world. With this plan, each lounge visit costs $27, but for a $399 annual fee customers can frequent an unlimited number of lounges without an additional fee.
"When you've got two hours at the airport," Brancatelli asks, "where do you want to spend it? At the gate or in the club?"
Another way to make flying more enjoyable is to select an airline with a positive reputation. In a J.D. Power and Associates survey of 19,000 fliers conducted earlier this year, Alaska Air Group, Continental Airlines and Delta Air Lines ranked the highest of legacy carriers for customer satisfaction. Among low-budget companies, JetBlue Airways and Southwest Airlines topped the list.
Sam Thanawalla, director of hospitality and travel at J.D. Power, says the survey also revealed a declining opinion of staff courtesy, which includes experiences at check-in and aboard the plane. Pressures on airline staff to do more with less, says Thanawalla, are affecting how they interact with passengers.
Thanawalla recommends that fliers stick with airlines where the morale is higher.
"The people factor," he says, "is that much more important."