Oct. 21, 2009 -- This is the story of a very foolish flier I will henceforth refer to as Clueless Traveler.
He is clueless because he makes every mistake in the book when planning a flight -- and drives up the cost of his trip up by more than 350 percent. I know most of you will never make such ridiculous mistakes, but trust me: it can and does happen.
Let's see where Clueless Traveler messed up, and how one can avoid this financial pain. All it takes is a little prep work. But more on that later.
By the way, the airfare and fees we will be dissecting are real figures; in the case of Clueless Traveler, the numbers come from the typical charges/fees of a legacy airline. Not to pick on legacy airlines because -- outside of checked bag fees -- most low cost airlines have similar fees, albeit at a slightly lower price point.
Ready? This past weekend, Clueless Traveler made reservations to go home for Thanksgiving on a roundtrip flight from Los Angeles to Chicago. The airfare alone cost him $563.20, but the mistakes he made ballooned the total price to an incredible $2,046.
First mistake: No flexibility. Clueless made his reservation for the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, returning on the Monday after. That Wednesday is always an extra-expensive day (as is the Sunday after Thanksgiving).
This year, Monday is not particularly reasonable either -- plus, several airlines have added a $10 "miscellaneous surcharge" to the ticket prices for travel on Nov. 29 and 30 just to make a few extra bucks.
How to Keep Holiday Travel Cheap
Second mistake: Reservations made by phone. Making reservations online is generally free, whether you use the airline site or a site like ours at FareCompare.com. You are penalized when booking by phone with a one-time charge of $25. That's easily avoided; if you don't have a computer, someone you know does.
Third mistake: Clueless Traveler originally made his reservations for different flights. A few days later he decided the times and dates weren't so convenient, so he made changes. Big mistake. His original ticket was "non-refundable," meaning he had to fork over a one-time "change fee" of $150 (we assume the new flight was the same price, which, in many cases, is much more).
Fourth mistake: Clueless picked seats with extra leg room. Now, this may not qualify as a "mistake" if this is something you genuinely want or need, but if you're looking for the cheapest airfare, this is an extra you can probably do without. Cost for LA to Chicago leg room: $39 each way.
Fifth mistake: Multiple bag fee transgressions. Where to begin? First, he didn't "pack light" and take a carryon bag, which would have cost him nothing. Then he decided he must take two checked bags, and instead of paying for them online (a savings of $5 a bag), he checked them at the airport.
It gets worse: one of the bags weighed 51 pounds, which put it in the "overweight" category; instead of jettisoning an item or two, he blithely paid the $125 one-way penalty fee. The other bag was an old-fashioned steamer trunk that Clueless loaded with Christmas presents, thinking he'd save on mailing costs. Bad idea, since this huge trunk is "oversized" -- which means another penalty of $175 one-way.
Sixth mistake: Not leaving Sparky at home. Clueless Traveler is one of those, "love me, love my dog" types, so Sparky had to go home for Thanksgiving, too. Only, at 90 pounds, Sparky was too big for the cabin so Clueless forked over big bucks for his cargo companion -- $250 each way.
Seventh mistake: Eating and drinking airline offerings. Never mind that Clueless was on an early flight, he simply has to have a cocktail each way, at $6 a pop; and he must have something off the "fresh food" menu, so there's another $9 each way. Next time, have the water, the coffee or the Coke on board because it's free. And pack your own sandwich.
How to Keep Holiday Travel Cheap
Let's tally up the damages:
Phone reservations: $25 (one-time charge)
Change fee: $150 (one-time charge)
Extra leg room: $39 each way
First checked bag: $20 plus $125 overweight fee = $145 each way
Second checked bag: $30 plus $175 oversize fee = $205 each way
Pet in cargo fee: $250 each way
Food and drink: $6 for alcoholic drink, $9 for food = $15 each way
Total cost of trip: $2,046.20
There may not be much hope for Clueless Traveler, but next time I hope he does a little prep work. Perhaps he can be more flexible on his dates, but if not, he should know exactly when he wants to fly, so he won't make expensive changes to his ticket later on.
If he must travel with a checked bag, just take one – and compare airfare with carriers that do not charge a bag fee. And leave Sparky at home.
Now for all of you Smart Travelers out there: the time to shop for your Turkey Day tickets is now, and absolutely purchase by the end of the month.
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.