April 23, 2008 — -- 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:
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.
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.
The airlines don't want you to do this. It costs them money to hire a human to deal with your reservation, and their Web sites do the job cheaply. So most airlines will make you pay for the human contact (and remind you that phone reservations may not allow you to take advantage of Web site specials). Ryanair is free (aside from the cost of long distance), but others will charge anywhere from $5 (Northwest) to $35 (US Airways) just to make that one call.
Take a look at the following chart, and see what else you pay for (including curbside baggage check-in fees that have really angered the Skycaps, since most people seem to think the fee includes the tip — it doesn't, folks, so add a couple of extra bucks for those hard-working luggage wranglers).
Take a look at the second bag charge heading in the columns above; that's a fee that really caught my eye. Remember when checking two bags for free was a given? Today, seven out of these 10 airlines will charge you for the privilege of checking a second bag (or they will starting next month). And Ryanair charges you for the first bag, as well as the second. United Airlines alone notes that this new $25 second-bag charge will add another $100 million per year to their bottom line.
Notice I haven't mentioned change fees; but then, they've been around for awhile. You know how it works: you have a ticket from Indianapolis to Los Angeles and, as you get closer to departure day, you decide you'd really rather fly into Burbank or you have to change the dates. The cost of changing the ticket is the difference in price of your new flight and your old flight after deducting the typical change fee of $100. But just this week, United Airlines has upped the ante; changing your plane tickets with them is now going to cost you $150, effectively removing the bulk of the residual value of most unused leisure tickets.
And now, United has decided to bring back the old Saturday night stay-price differential. Most airlines dropped these requirements several years ago, to the delight of business travelers who planned ahead but were penalized with higher fares because they preferred not to spend a Saturday night on the road. Look for more airlines to resurrect this old rule, all in the name of raising revenue.
So back to our riddle; I did a little experiment: I pulled out our bathroom scale, and loaded it with a few common items a man and a woman would pack for an overnight trip. My little pile consisted of the following:
Total weight: 12 lbs.
I was surprised. All that weight, and not much in the way of clothing or other stuff you might need on a multi-day trip. And that reminds me: wherever you travel, pack as lightly as you can (Honey, this means you!).
I smirked earlier this year when I read a German travel agency had announced a flight for nudists. Let's hope the idea of charging people for the privilege of wearing clothes doesn't cross the desk of any especially ambitious airline bean counters!
The trend of charging for anything and everything is not going away soon. In fact, I'll go out on a very sturdy limb and say, it's not going away at all. But you can skirt around many charges, with just a little pre-planning: bring your own food, your own headsets, and pack light so you can carry your own bags onboard yourself.
Oh, and leave Sparky at home — he probably hates the rigors of today's air travel just as much as the rest of us.
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.