smart spending

Multiple airline fees add to travel costs

Gone are the days when airlines would ply you with hot meals and cold drinks.

Today, the price of a ticket just gets you through the plane door. Other items, from seat assignments to soft drinks, meals and additional luggage, are often a la carte.

Basically, airlines are saying, "We just get you there, anything else is extra," says Rick Seaney, CEO of FareCompare.com, a Web site that tracks airfare prices and trends.

One "extra" that really isn't optional for travelers: fuel. Many airlines are levying additional fees to cover the rising cost of fuel. In some cases, those surcharges can be as much as the fare itself.

To get your best deal, decide what's important to you for a good flight. It may be worth it to pay the tab for some items (extra leg room anyone?). Or you might want to slice every dollar you can to splurge at your destination. Either way, you're choosing where to spend your money.

Here's the quick run-down of some fees you're likely to see if you're flying in the next few months, along with strategies for keeping that money in your pocket:

1. Fuel surcharges.  Bob Whitley, president of the U.S. Tour Operators Association, noticed that the fuel surcharges for one destination with one airline changed "three times in a 15-day period -- and it's not going down," he says.

Last year, surcharges were running about $20 round-trip for domestic flights, says Seaney. This year, surcharges on domestic flights are as high as $170 round-trip. Surcharges on European flights are averaging about $340, and for Asia, the average is about $360, he says.

Avoid by: Shopping around and looking at total cost (fare plus fuel surcharge), not just fares. Surcharges vary, even for the same destination. Some carriers may not levy surcharges either across the board or on certain routes. A higher fare with a lower surcharge could add up to a cheaper trip.

2. Food and drink.  With airlines, don't expect a full meal unless you're on a trans-Atlantic or trans-Pacific flight, says David Lytle, editorial director for Frommers.com.

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Instead, you can purchase a la carte snacks, like a bag of nuts, candy or chips, or sometimes a boxed lunch, often for about $3 to $10.

Alcoholic drinks are running $3 to $6, Seaney says.

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