Airfare Expert: How taxes and fees make 'cheap' Europe flights expensive

Most expensive part of your ticket to Europe has nothing to do with the airfare.

Jan. 28, 2012— -- Would you scoff if you heard the airfare from Boston to New York was actually 25% more expensive than a trans-Atlantic trip between Boston and London?

It is absolutely true - but there is a hitch. While the roundtrip airfare from Boston to London on Virgin Atlantic is just $81 - and JetBlue's Boston to New York fare is $112 - the taxes and surcharges on the trans-Atlantic flight are $609!

For those keeping score, the surcharges and taxes on the domestic flight are just $21.

In other words, the most expensive part of your ticket to Europe has nothing to do with the airfare. It's all about the surcharges and taxes.

So who adds in all these surcharges, taxes and fees?

Surcharges are added by airlines ostensibly to cover the cost of fuel, and to a lesser extent, for insurance coverage on some European carriers. But don't try to figure out the fuel surcharge by doing the obvious - calculating mileage - since the surcharge often has more to do with competitive price matching than any correlation to trip distance.

Taxes and fees, on the other hand, are charged by over half a dozen entities ranging from federal governments and their various agencies to local airports.

There is little if any transparency for consumers when it comes to either of these charges as they are both typically plunked under the catch-all phrase, "Taxes/Fees" on your airline ticket purchase page.

What are the surcharges and taxes on flights to Europe?

A review of 250 nonstop flights from the U.S. to Europe shows that the average round-trip cost of surcharges and taxes is $582 ($448 in surcharges and $134 in taxes/fees).

And these taxes and fees vary dramatically depending on your destination - for example round-trip taxes/fees to Spain are as low $76 while that figure can be as high as $196 to the United Kingdom.

Fuel surcharges can vary widely, too, as much as $476 to Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Italy, Switzerland and Spain, compared to a relatively paltry $217 to Ireland. See the chart at left to see which cities have the cheapest surcharges and taxes.

Is transparency on these charges going to change?

Beginning on Jan. 26, new regulations from the U.S. Department of Transportation go into effect that mandate airfares include complete pricing - including taxes and fees - in all advertising. It's a bid to make pricing more transparent with no nasty surprises when you get to the end of the booking process. But you won't see any breakdown in the disclosure requirements - at least not for now.

What's the point of the surcharges?

Short answer: Airline revenue and competitive matching.

The longer explanation is that surcharges are typically associated with some sort of expense airlines are trying to pass on to their passengers, like the cost of fuel - even though they don't do a good job of blaming it on oil companies.

It's also a handy device for charging more money on the most popular days of travel. Good examples are those expensive tickets for Thanksgiving travel, and those of you heading to next month's Super Bowl have probably also experienced surcharges on your tickets to Indianapolis.

So what can I do about these add-on costs?

Not a whole lot - okay, nothing - except shop for flights to Europe as carefully as possible. This means flying the cheapest time of the week - usually, Monday through Thursday - and avoiding the worst of the expensive peak season of summer.

Hint: if you travel before the end of May and after late August, you'll usually pay a lot less.

FareCompare CEO Rick Seaney is an airline industry insider and top media air travel resource. Follow Rick ( @rickseaney) and never overpay for airfare again.