8 Airline Gotchas You Need to Know About

Some airlines trends are good. For example, flying is safer (and more reliable) than ever. Other trends are not so good but you need to know about them to protect yourself – and your wallet. Here are eight increasingly common gotchas.

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Listen: Rick Seaney’s personal take on all these gotchas.

1. Fee bundles

It’s a simple idea. An airline takes two or three fairly expensive amenities such as bigger seats, early boarding or stand-by privileges, bundles them together and cuts the fee in half. Tip: Avoid the temptation to snag a deal by paying only for what you really want or need. Say no to everything else.

2. Hard-core salesmanship

The hard-sell for bundled fees and other airline extras begins the moment you book your flight and continues through take-off. Passengers get hammered online, via email, at airport kiosks and by gate agents. The good news is, the fees for extras tends to go down the closer you get to departure but it’s no less annoying no matter where the hard-sell happens. If you don’t want it just say no.

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3. Cramped seating

For the past several years, the airline business model might be called Fill Every Seat. In early 2003, U.S. airlines had an average load factor of about 64% but a decade later, load factors were up to 83%. Empty middle seats cost airlines money so they’ll keep packing us in. Get used to struggling for the armrest. Tip: Fly overnight or red-eye flights or departures at dawn for your best shot at sitting next to an empty seat.

4. Modern aircraft

First the good news: So many shiny new Boeing 777s and 787 Dreamliners for us to fly in. The bad news is, passengers are essentially the ones who pay for these cool new planes. No way to avoid this so just consider the bad old days of creaky planes that had no place for you to plug in an electronic device.

5. Higher-priced business class tickets

If you fly a lot for work, this will hit you where you live (or hit your boss, anyway). In the past year, more airlines have focused price hikes on big-spending road warriors. On the other hand, even business travelers go on vacation and the airlines have had less success raising leisure fares.

6. Fewer amenities

While it’s true that more and more domestic coast-to-coast flights offer terrific amenities in first and business class like those lie-flat seats, the experience in coach is a another story. Remember meals in coach? The last one was served back in 2010 by Continental. Now, when’s the last time one of the big airlines offered you a pack of peanuts? Some still do but not all. Tip: Bring your own food from home.

7. Smaller city cutbacks

Earlier this year, American Airlines announced cuts of non-stop flights to/from biggish and smaller cities and Washington Reagan National Airport. Hubs like US Airways’ Philadelphia, Charlotte and Phoenix are safe for a few more years (as per the settlement between the American/US Airways and the Justice Department) but after that? Watch for it to get harder for flyers in smaller towns to find non-stop flights.  Tip: If your hometown airport loses competition, check out airfare prices for the nearest hub airport; it might make a longer drive worth it.

8. Attempts to thwart smart shopping

Airlines want you to book with them, and only them. They don’t like online travel agencies because that provides price comparisons that don’t always make them look good, and it also makes it a little harder to upsell extras that generate revenue. Sometimes shoppers who buy away from the airline’s website are actually penalized; Frontier does this by charging these shopper for carry-on bags. However, such fees can pale in comparison to the money saved by getting the best deal possible and the only way to be certain of that – and this is simply common sense – is by comparing airfares.

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Published: January 23, 2014