Airlines have done away with free meals, drinks and other extras on flights. But hoping to boost earnings in lean times, they're now adding extra fees for holiday travel, and even expanding the definition of holiday.
The new fees are doubling and, in some cases, tripling in cost and extending holiday surcharges into the spring. Many of the major airlines started imposing surcharges of $10 for travel around Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day. The fee increased recently to $20 and it is not stopping there.
Travelers can now expect to pay an extra $30 for travel on March 14, 20, 21 and 28, and April 5 and 11. These are not your regular bank holidays, including travel on special days such as March 14, the start of daylight saving time.
The largest surcharge comes from Delta/Northwest, which will impose a $50 surcharge for travel in certain South Florida airports Feb. 8, the day after the Super Bowl in Miami.
In addition, a $20 surcharge will apply to Delta, Northwest and United passengers on Feb. 12 and a $10 surcharge March 7-10, 15, 18, 19, 22, 25-27, 29 and April 1-4 and 8-10.
The surcharges come on top of regular ticket prices, leading some industry experts to say the surcharges are fare hikes in disguise.
"They are going to hit us with not only a holiday surcharge but now they've come up with a new term," said Tom Parsons, CEO of BestFares.com. "I'm calling it a peak-travel day holiday. We have not 10 or 11 or 12 peak holidays, we've got 41."
The holiday rate hikes have caused sticker shock for consumers expecting cheap fares, and the price hikes have stretched across the country.
From March through June of this year, the average airfare for a domestic flight, including both round-trip and one-way fares for which no return flight was purchased, was $301, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation's Bureau of Transportation Statistics. That's down 13 percent from the same time last year -- the largest decline ever recorded by the government -- putting airfare prices back to where they were in 1998.
To counter those price drops, the airlines have grounded planes, reducing the number of available seats between destinations. So there are now fewer seats available to fly to visit family for Thanksgiving and Christmas, and the airlines charge an even-higher premium for those remaining seats.
"It is the perfect storm," said Brian Clark, the general manager of airfare search site Fly.com. "When demand surges on a low, fixed number of available seats, fares jump."
Travelers should be prepared.
"You have to act like a Boy Scout when it comes to holiday travel; be prepared for the worst and have a wry smile ready when you see the airport in your rear view mirror," said Rick Seaney, CEO of flight search site FareCompare.com and an ABC News weekly columnist.
Plenty of airlines have advertised some great sales recently. Southwest Airlines just offered a number of $25 fares for select flights, a promotion matched by American Airlines. But such great deals are for travel in early December and January.
Planes are likely to be filled this holiday season, so there is "no incentive" for airlines to discount fares, Seaney said.
U.S. air carriers have lost $4 billion this year, and don't expect to return to profitability until 2011.