Regulation Almost Levels the Airfare Shopping Field

PHOTO: Changes are coming to airfare pricing regulations.

You've seen those gotta-fly prices - deals from Long Beach to Vegas for just $29 - but is that what it really costs? Of course not.

Advertised airfares do not line up with reality. Some call this dishonest pricing, but it's all perfectly legal, as long as the price includes that little asterisk leading to the fine print explaining that $29 is a one-way base price and that "additional taxes and fees may apply." They apply, alright and will and bloat a 29 buck fare to about $80 round-trip total.

In case you're wondering, I saw that $29 special on JetBlue but I'm not trashing them. All the airlines do this and so do all the ticket agencies, for now. But wait a couple of weeks.

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Changes are coming to airfare pricing regulations, and high time, too, especially in the arena of international fares. Delta recently advertised a sale from New York to London "starting at just $259*". When I tried finding that fare, I was actually shown a cheaper base price of $151 but the taxes and fees rocketed the entire round-trip ticket price to $735.

That is actually a good deal, but it is not the deal you thought you were promised. Same thing for the $29 fare. The Department of Transportation (DOT), taking note of this, pointed out that some consumers see this as a bait-and-switch tactic and decided to act. There were some delays but now, beginning Jan. 26, any fares you see advertised are must be "the full price to be paid by the consumer including all mandated government taxes and fees."

In other words, what you see is what you'll get and what you'll pay for, and this affects all airfare advertisers, including the airlines, online and offline travel agencies, meta-search sites and potentially anyone that provides billboard space to sellers or quoters of airline tickets. Just FYI, my site - FareCompare - has always shown the total price of a ticket from the get-go, because we believe in transparency.

So problem solved? I wish.

For consumers, knowing the total price with taxes/fees included will make it much easier to compare prices a la apples to apples. Plus shoppers will avoid the nasty surprise of discovering at the end of the booking process that their steal-of-a-deal airfare isn't anything of the sort.

However, winning the airfare game will still require skill and fortitude. For instance, I don't know how many times I've heard from people who say, "I'd love to buy that cheap fare if only I could find the darn thing!" What a lot of folks don't know is when airlines have a publicly advertised sale, they never put an entire plane-load of seats on sale. All the Dept. of Transportation says about that is "a reasonable number of seats" must be part of any sale, and that is understood to be about 10 percent of all seats.

Of course, sales have lots of other restrictions these days such as forcing you to fly on a Tuesday or Wednesday only. So even if you're armed with the knowledge of the total airfare price, when you start looking for that special deal on Day 2 or 3 of a three-day sale, you could be out of luck.

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