Rising gas prices driving up travel costs

March 14, 2011|By Liz F. Kay

Are you factoring additional fuel costs into your travel plans for this spring and summer?

Here are some additional tips and thoughts from experts I spoke with for the story that Hanah Cho and I wrote about the impact of high gas prices on travel:

The current trend of adding fuel surcharges on top of base fares is infuriating, said consumer travel advocate Christopher Elliott. “They have the gall to quote you this low base fare when no one is able to pay that,” he said.

He said this is the second big surcharge frenzy, after high gas prices in 2007 prompted the airlines to institute checked-bag fees. “All of that was kind of blamed on the higher fuel costs, even after fuel prices came back,” he said.

Travelers love cheap seats, and airlines love ancillary fees, which equal huge profits for the companies.

“Now airlines are just using this as another excuse to further unbundle their tickets, where practically nothing is included in the cost of an air travel experience,” he said.

A cynical observer would say this is just an opportunity for airlines to make money, he said.

Travelers worried about fuel surcharges should be wary of cruises. About 75 percent of the costs of a trip to a resort or a tour might be hotels and meals and sightseeing, said Annette Nero Stellhorn, owner of the Accent on Travel agency in Towson.

“Cruise lines are taking it far more seriously because of the quantity of fuel they take,” Stellhorn said. “If you’re looking at a cruise, the majority of the cost is to keep the cruise ship moving.”

Moderately priced cruise lines tend to be more aggressive with fuel charges, because they operate on smaller margins.

The fuel surcharges on cruises are especially frustrating, because you can’t back out, Elliott said.

“You’re going to pay nine dollars a day or lose the cruise,” he said. “That is probably the cruelest thing a cruise line can do.”

But Stellhorn also pointed out that even at $9 a day, fuel surcharges represent a small fraction of the cost of a trip. “It’s very important for any vacationer to be finding out exactly the policy” before they book, she said.

Consumers should definitely read any fine print.

Elliott said that disclosure of fees varies from “not well disclosed to hardly at all” — at least when it comes to fuel surcharges. “When it comes to other fees, those might not be disclosed at all,” he said.

“We already know the cost of air travel can routinely double because of fees,” he said. “As fuel surcharges go up, they are probably going to more than double.”

The U.S. Department of Transportation is considering rulemaking that would require airlines and online travel agencies to disclose the full cost of a ticket, including baggage fees and so-called ‘optional’ services, he said. And some lawmakers are considering attaching language to the Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill that would require airlines to disclose the full price, he said.

But until those protections are in place, “I would say, brace for more surprises and assume nothing,” Elliott said.

Consumers have a reasonable expectation of knowing how much something cost. “One of the cornerstones of a free-market economy is being honest with the customer and telling them how much you’re going to charge them,” Elliott said.

Shielding the true cost “runs counter to everything we believe in as a country.”
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