Avoid Airline Fuel Surcharges

This is not a great time for the airline industry, and it sure isn't a great time for the bargain airfare shopper. And brace yourself, some predict that oil may go to $130 a barrel or higher.

But, you know it's bad; you see the soaring prices at the pump every time you gas up your car. And, you know the airlines are being hit hard, because they hit you hard, in the form of fuel surcharges -- surcharges that just seem to keep going up, up, up.

But not always, which is where it gets a little confusing. This little quiz demonstrates that very nicely.

Question: You want to fly from Los Angeles to Salt Lake City. Which of the following three airlines -- as of Monday -- has no fuel surcharge?

A. Delta

B. Southwest

C. US Airways

The correct answer is A and B. And it's a little complicated.: Southwest, true to its lower-cost carrier status, doesn't have a fuel surcharge (in fact, for 2008 it is buying most of its oil at $51 a barrel); Delta often adds a fuel surcharge, but knowing that Los Angeles to Salt Lake is a very competitive nonstop Southwest route, the legacy carrier eschews the surcharge in this instance, to stay competitive.

So both Southwest and Delta charge $148 for this flight route. But US Airways, which like Southwest, is a lower-cost airline, has less invested in the L.A. to Salt Lake route; for this airline, the route is a simple connecting flight, so it doesn't mind tacking on a $50 surcharge to its $148 base price.

It figures that, even though the surcharge is one-third of the price of the ticket, someone will pay the cost, perhaps because seats on the other airlines are sold out, or because loyal US Airways regulars want to get their frequent flier miles and will pay the extra freight to do so.

Still a little confused? I'm not surprised. But I'm here to help.

First, bear in mind that we didn't see fuel surcharges until the middle of last year; by the end of 2007, the surcharges amounted to about $20 per domestic roundtrip. The current fuel surcharge for many domestic flights has now risen to about $50 (and is running more than four times higher on international routes). And we can expect to see more and more fuel surcharges for a long time to come.

But you can sometimes beat these surcharges, or at least find ways to lower your overall airfare costs, by following these seven simple tips:

Follow Southwest Airlines Routes: So far, this airline isn't adding surcharges, and most airlines match Southwest airfares on Southwest routes to stay in the game.

Fly on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays: These are the cheapest days to fly, and many of the tickets marketed as "sale" airfares on these "cheapest days" don't include a fuel surcharge.

Be on the lookout for "Open Skies" specials: Starting March 30, more routes to Europe will open up and new routes are frequently promoted with exceptional deals (like this special touted in January by Northwest Airlines for summer travel: Seattle to London, $660 roundtrip -- all inclusive).

For European travel, head first to airports with lower taxes/fuel surcharges: If you go to Dublin, for example, you can save because of its low airport fees (about half as much as London's Heathrow) and cheaper fuel surcharges (driven by Aer Lingus); then save again by flying a discount European carrier (i.e., Ryanair) to locations throughout Europe.

If you can't avoid fuel surcharges, don't compound the problem by traveling to pricey destinations: Instead of London where the dollar is weak, try vacationing in Eastern Europe, the Bahamas, Brazil, Vietnam or New Zealand.

Avoid traveling at peak times (especially holidays): This year, tickets at these times could be at an all-time high. Travelers who must fly at peak times should think seriously about purchasing tickets now to lock in their airfare at the current fuel surcharge levels.

Shop early: This is something that should be done whenever you plan to fly this year, and it is not too early to begin thinking about Thanksgiving and Christmas-time travel.

So how bad are those international route fuel surcharges? Here is a table showing some of the current fuel surcharges (for roundtrip travel in July):

New York to London -- American, Continental, Delta $182

New York to Dublin -- Aer Lingus, Continental, Delta $140

New York to Tokyo -- US Airways $216, American, Northwest, Continental $250

Los Angeles to London -- American, United, Delta $222; British Airways, Virgin Atlantic $246

Los Angeles to Dublin -- Aer Lingus, American $182

Los Angeles to Tokyo -- Singapore Air $160; American $250; United $300

You can avoid the worst of the fuel surcharges, if you put a little time and effort into the shopping process. For leisure travelers, that means following the tips above, as well as the all-important basics you should always keep in mind as you look for the cheapest airfare: be flexible, educate yourself and be sure you're working with Web sites that have the very best technology available.

This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Rick Seaney is one of the country's leading experts on airfare, giving interviews and analysis to news organizations including ABC News, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Reuters, The Associated Press and Bloomberg. His Web site FareCompare.com offers consumers free, new generation, software combined with expert insider tips to find the best airline ticket deal.