Why Airlines Are Nickel and Dime-ing You

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Here's a riddle for you: What do my wife's curling iron, the latest hardback thriller and my favorite jeans have in common?

The answer (which I'll reveal at the end) has to do with the way airlines are nickel-and-diming us to death these days. I am not talking about the plane tickets, though the cost of airfare is bad enough, what with the post-9/11 security fees, airport/government tack-ons and the increasingly nasty fuel surcharges.

These airline ticket charges alone can be like deciphering your latest phone bill — just when you think you've seen all the fees, you suddenly come to that last page with those 3,000 text messages your teenager racked up. But at least we know about the extras that make up our ticket, and once the ticket is purchased, that's it, we're done.

Only, we're not. Get out your wallet.

What I'm talking about are those hidden-in-plain-sight costs. Think of the free meals we used to get that we now have to pay for. The extra baggage charges. The headset fees.

And you know why it happens: it's a new stream of revenue for airlines who are trying just about anything to make a buck in order to keep their heads above water, with oil near $120 a barrel. Not to mention the added "benefit" to the airlines of making the "total cost" of the air portion of your trip harder to compare.

These "nickels and dimes" do add up. For example, last year American Airlines flew approximately 100 million passengers. If 15 percent of them checked a bag at the curb at $2 per bag, that's a cool $30 million in additional revenue.

So I decided to take a closer look at these fees on the following airlines: AirTran, American, Continental, Delta, JetBlue, Northwest, Ryanair (Ireland), Southwest, United and US Airways.

I broke down these costs into categories that I think we all make use of from time to time: food service, phone reservations, headsets, a second bag charge, curbside check-in fees and the cost of transporting pets. And this is what I learned:

Food

Continental: the last free lunch (and dinner) for coach passengers. If your flight is longer than two hours, you will get a meal. The other airlines may give you a meal or a snack, but you will generally pay for it. Some airlines offer snacks for as little as $2 (Northwest), while others provide more substantial offerings at a more substantial price, such as Delta's $8 salads and sandwiches.

Pets

Want to travel with Sparky? Some airlines don't accept pets at all, so call ahead. The cost of cabin-traveling-pets is about $80 one-way (but it better be a small pet, and make reservations because most airlines limit the number of pets in cabins). Most pets that weigh more than 15 pounds have to travel as cargo, but look out because more and more airlines are refusing to carry animals in cargo.

Perhaps they remember the Westminster Dog Show entrant, Vivi, who escaped from her carrier at JFK, never to be seen again (well, actually "sightings" still occur regularly, no doubt phoned in by the same folks that run into Elvis at Burger King). Also, it should be noted that cargo flights for pets don't come cheap: Sparky's trip could cost you as much as $360 one way.

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