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Air fares gain altitude on fuel costs, fees

Waiting to snag a cheap ticket to fly this summer? Good luck.

With airlines continually raising fares to cope with skyrocketing fuel prices, travel agents and online ticket sellers say it's time to buy if you see a fare that looks remotely reasonable.

"At this point,'' says Rick Seaney, chief executive of the Web site FareCompare.com, "it's about getting a better bad deal.''

Airlines have pushed through 11 broad-based fare increases this year, most recently an extra $20 round-trip fuel surcharge last week started by Delta Air Lines and matched by competitors, says Seaney. Most traditional carriers have added surcharges totaling at least $100 over the past year.

Passengers flying out of Tampa International this summer shouldn't be shocked to find double-digit percentage increases in their fares compared with a year ago.

The average round-trip domestic fare paid by customers at Travelocity.com for this summer is $368, up $52, or 16.5 percent, over last year. "Keep that price point in mind,'' says Genevieve Brown, senior editor for the Web site. "If you can find a price you can live with, book it.''

Airlines are straining under jet fuel costs that in March were nearly 70 percent higher than a year earlier. Over the same period, domestic air fares went up 7.4 percent, according to the Air Transport Association, the trade group for major U.S. airlines.

"We have to look at every possible new revenue stream to offset these soaring fuel prices,'' said association spokesman David Castelveter.

That has led to a wave of new or higher fees. Many airlines now charge $25 each way to check a second bag. United and US Airways raised their fee for changing a nonrefundable domestic ticket to $150 from $100. Delta imposed its first fee for checking a bag at curbside: $3 each.

How much more it will cost you to fly to a given city is tougher to figure out. Airlines typically sell from eight to 10 different fare levels for each flight — from a first-class or full-coach fare to the cheapest nonrefundable ticket, says Seaney. And they can change multiple times each day.

Markets like the Tampa Bay area with robust competition from discount carriers — Southwest Airlines, AirTran Airways and JetBlue Airways — tend to have fewer increases and cheaper fares.

Fran Taylor of Safety Harbor found herself shopping Thursday for two tickets to Cleveland in August when an earlier reservation on discount airline USA 3000 fell through. She paid Continental Airlines $304 each for two tickets.

Her price was $116, or 62 percent, more than the cheapest fare Continental offered a year earlier for a round-trip from Tampa International Airport to Cleveland, according to data from FareCompare.com.

Still, she figured Continental's price was fair considering how much the airline is paying for fuel. "What else am I supposed to do,'' asked Taylor, 80, who's traveling to attend a granddaughter's wedding shower. "Grandma's got to be there.''

Seaney predicts two more airline price increases this month and several more to follow in 2008. His advice for travelers: start shopping for Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Steve Huettel can be reached at

huettel@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3384.

>>Fast facts

Tips for getting cheap fares

• Start price-shopping three or four months ahead.

• Travel on Tuesday, Wednesday or Saturday.

• Pick the earliest flight or catch a late afternoon or evening flight.

>>Fast facts

Fare changes

2007 to 2008

From Tampa International (round trip)

• Dallas (American): $194/$242 (+24.7%)

• Las Vegas (US Airways) $168/$270 (+60.7%)

• New York (Multiple airlines) $188/$178 (-5.3%)

Note: Lowest fares for May 15, 2007, and May 13, 2008.

Source: FareCompare.com

Air fares gain altitude on fuel costs, fees 05/16/08 [Last modified: Saturday, May 17, 2008 11:25pm]
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