Airline Ticket Surcharges for Peak Domestic Travel – Avoid the Most Expensive Days

Late last fall airlines were struggling to get system wide domestic price hikes to “stick” after ticket prices bottomed last May to decade lows.

Each time they tried an airfare hike people quit buying tickets, or competitors (usually low cost airlines) wouldn’t join in and prices had to be rolled back to stay competitive.

That all changed on Wednesday September 23, 2009, when American Airlines added a $10 surcharge, coded ‘Q’ for “Miscellaneous/Other,” (‘F’ is Fuel) to the majority of its fares.

Peak Travel Surcharge Chart - May 20

At the time we called these new departure date based fare add-ons “Peak Holiday Surcharges” and they were only applicable to three very specific departure days: the Sunday after Thanksgiving (Nov. 29) and Jan. 2 and 3. Delta, Northwest (at the time), US Airways and United Airlines followed suit, adding surcharges to those same popular travel days.

This new technique of targeting busy travel days worked, as the flood gates opened up with airlines incrementally adding more days and higher amounts every few weeks (even $50 one-way for Super Bowl weekend).

At this point, one would have to call Summer a “holiday” as a $10 to $30 surcharge (each way) has been imposed for the bulk of the summer.

Peak Air Travel Surcharge Departure Day Chart

FareCompare has proprietary software that tracks these surcharges (both domestic and international) and we have created a chart (to the right) that shows the dates, airlines and amounts being charged on specific departure days this year.

The chart has been color coded so you can quickly see the departure dates where the $10, $20 and $30 amounts are being charged on each direction of your trip.

I find this helpful to understand those days that we should avoid flying if at all possible (even on half your trip), not only because of the higher priced ticket, but to heed airlines who are telling us exactly which days to avoid the hassles of flying from/to packed airports.

How Peak Air Travel Surcharges are Filed

Peak travel day surcharges are filed in the same manner as fuel surcharges which were popular in 2008 when oil hit $140+ per barrel.

The surcharge amount applicable for the specified departure day(s) is added to the base airfare price and a 7.5% sales tax is applied.

Then fees for airport facilities, FAA and TSA are added to that amount to provide the final quoted amount (you can typically only see them broken out if you view the fare rule restrictions for the “surcharge” category).

These charges are NOT charged separately like airline bag fees, which are an “extra” item (currently untaxed unless a few Congressmen get their way), like trip insurance, something you choose to pay. Passengers have no way to opt out of this surcharge, it is baked into the final flight price quote.

Airlines also benefit from filing surcharges in this manner because one simple rule changes tens of thousands of airfares, which means they don’t have to file specific date based airfares that can cost them filing fees.

How to Avoid Peak Travel Surcharges

If you are flying on a legacy airline it will be almost impossible to avoid them for summer travel but you can minimize them by traveling on Tuesday and Wednesday and avoiding Sunday.

Low cost airlines like Southwest and JetBlue along with others like Alaska and Frontier don’t currently have peak travel surcharges (this doesn’t mean they have not raised their fares on certain routes however) and legacy airlines match this “no surcharge” behavior on overlapping competitive routes.

Also certain sale airfares (even though their have been very few summer sales) typically don’t have these surcharges.

Peak travel surcharges drop off in the last week of August as kids start to head back to school, so late summer trips are one way to completely avoid this embedded surcharges.

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Published: May 25, 2010