Rising gas prices affect spring break plans

Some travelers paying more; airlines add fuel surcharges

March 13, 2011|By Hanah Cho, The Baltimore Sun

For her last spring break next week, Morgan State University senior Tenisha Duke planned a road trip to Florida with friends, the eight of them packed in two cars. That way, they could split the cost of gas.

But when violence broke out half a world away, sending gas prices here soaring, even that strategy wasn't frugal enough for Duke. She will be spending her break at her District of Columbia home instead of the beach.

"I'll be home," said Duke, who spends $80 a week on gas to commute to Morgan State's North Baltimore campus. "And that will save me gas money for the week."

As the spring getaway season begins this month with college students jetting off to sunny destinations and families soon joining them when schools have breaks in April, surging prices at the pumps are hampering plans and tacking on additional costs for travelers. In Maryland, gas prices averaged more than $3.50 a gallon last week — up from $2.75 a year ago, according to AAA Mid-Atlantic.

And that's not the only mode of transportation getting pricier.

Airlines are increasing fares and adding surcharges to offset the runaway cost of fuel. Longer flights to Europe are hard hit with surcharges reaching $400 just as vacationers book summer getaways, according to travel site BestFares.com

Several European-based cruise lines also have imposed or increased daily fuel fees on passengers. Major U.S. cruise ships such as Carnival Cruise Lines have imposed fuel surcharges in the past and have reserved the right to reinstate them if oil prices exceed a certain price.

Oil prices have spiked on fears of unrest that halted crude production in Libya spreading to other parts of the Middle East. While oil prices fell Friday, on the belief that Japan's massive earthquake would dampen demand, the future is uncertain and potentially volatile.

If oil prices continue to climb this summer, so may the cost of a tank of gas, a plane ticket and cruise fare.

Consumer travel advocate Christopher Elliott said the average price of a plane ticket has gone up $50 since the beginning of the year. For spring and summer travel, prices are expected to increase another 20 percent over last year, he said.

"Airlines want to offload their fuel risks on us," he said.

Overseas travelers will feel the pinch in particular. Delta, United and American are among U.S. airlines that have imposed higher fuel surcharges on many overseas routes. International carriers also are passing along costs. Last week, Singapore Airlines and Qantas Airways raised their fuel surcharges.

The average fuel surcharge to Europe is now $400, up from about $150 a few years ago, according to BestFares.com, which tracks the fees.

Moreover, some airlines have cut back on flights to Europe — even though the number of travelers in the skies has returned to pre-recession levels — making the available flights more expensive, said travel expert Tom Parsons, who operates BestFares.com.

Some airlines, including American, have baked higher fuel costs into fares for domestic flights. Southwest Airlines, the largest carrier at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, has announced some increases over the past few weeks, typically between $5 and $10 each way.

"As prices increase on big items like fuel, there are changes that all airlines have to make," said Whitney Eichinger, a Southwest spokeswoman.

Airlines are optimistic that higher fares won't deter travel plans.

"Overall traffic is holding its own, with domestic a little more close to flat and international growing fairly strongly," said Tim Smith, spokesman for American Airlines. "In general we expect the broad trends to continue, and we'll have a pretty busy summer."

Eichinger said sales have been strong so far this year, with record passenger traffic in January and February. "Going into spring break is a very busy time for us," she said. "We haven't seen any softening in demand."

But industry experts said consumers could balk at the higher fares. "It's definitely a concern whether it will impact passenger decisions to travel, because they have other things they could spend money on," said Paul Wiedefeld, executive director of the Maryland Aviation Administration, which operates BWI Marshall.

More cruise lines also may add fuel surcharges if oil prices continue to surge, said Colleen McDonough, an owner of Annapolis-based Aladdin Travel Agency, which books cruise trips.

"There's no way large vessels could travel without being compensated for that," McDonough said.

Last month, Cunard Line increased its daily fuel fee to $9 from $6 per passenger for a maximum of $300 per person for voyages after mid-April. It was the second increase in as many months for the luxury liner, which makes trips to the Caribbean, Mediterranean and Europe.

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