The bad news about summer air fares keeps stacking up like aircraft waiting to land at San Francisco International Airport on a foggy day.
First, airlines hiked fares in response to escalating oil prices. Then they stopped discounting seats as the economy improved and travelers started returning to the skies. Now, carriers are quietly adding surcharges to tickets on peak travel days this summer.
At this point, carriers consider every day this summer to be a peak travel day -- except July 4. Surcharges, levied by American, Continental, Delta, United and US Airways, vary from $10 to $30 per a one-way domestic flight and are typically higher Thursday through Sunday.
They can add up quickly.
"If you leave on Sunday, and come back on Sunday, and each check one bag each way, for a family of four that's $110 in fees per person," said Rick Seaney, chief executive of FareCompare.com. "That's $440 before base air fare and taxes."
American Airlines started the peak-day surcharge movement last fall, when it added a $10 surcharge on fares for the Sunday after Thanksgiving, as well as Jan. 2 and Jan. 3. Other airlines quickly followed suit.
Carriers then realized that the surcharge, which is not transparent to passengers, was an easy way for them to make money without it being apparent to consumers that they're raising fares.
A struggling economy has made it more difficult for carriers to increase ticket prices, forcing them to come up with more creative ways to earn money -- hence baggage fees and charges for everything from pillows to snacks to headphones. Carriers successfully raised fares 14 times in 2007, on 17 occasions in 2008, but only four times last year.
"What happened when they started doing air fare hikes over the last couple of months is that people stopped buying tickets," Seaney said. "They tried a half a dozen fare hikes and none of them were successful."
Even so, air fares are up 9% this summer when compared with a similar period last year, jumping from $330 for a domestic ticket to $362, according to Travelocity. Granted, fares last year were the lowest they've been in a decade, so a price jump, coupled with a strengthening of business travel, is not unexpected.
Surcharges are included in fares, requiring consumers to wade through a six-page list of rules and restrictions to discover how much airlines charge on any given day. Now, they are available for travelers to review, however, in an analysis published on FareCompare's website.
Seaney suggests that travelers consult this chart, which shows how much each of the big five American legacy carriers charges each day, when they are making reservations. To get the best prices, he counsels travelers to shop for tickets on Tuesday afternoon when airlines typically post sales for that week. Most of the seats at these prices are removed by Thursday, he said.
And do it now.
"If you're planning on procrastinating like you did last year to get a good deal," Seaney said, "that's not going to happen this year."
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