Summer travel tips: What to know before you go

THE CHARLOTTE OBSERVERJune 17, 2013 

Summer is the time for vacations, and all the hassles that come with them: Crowded planes, higher airline fees and unpredictable, often-rising fares.

Airlines insist you're still getting a good deal when you fly. "It's one of the best bargains out there for consumers," US Airways president Scott Kirby said at the company's media day this spring in Tempe, Ariz. "You often pay more for your hotel room than you do transcontinental flights."

But things don't feel that way for consumers, who have seen a profusion of new fees and charges for services that used to be free, such as checked baggage and in-flight snacks.

Whether you're driving or flying, keep in mind:

1. HIGHER CHANGE FEES

When you book tickets for a flight this summer, double- or even triple-check your dates. It might cost you more to change the date of a flight than the price of the ticket itself.

United Airlines, Delta Air Lines, American Airlines and US Airways all raised their fees for changing a domestic ticket to $200 this year. For international flights, it can be even higher, with fees ranging up to $300.

Southwest Airlines still doesn't charge change fees.

2. FARES THIS SUMMER

Rick Seaney, CEO of airfare website FareCompare.com, wrote recently that although prices are high this summer by historical standards, they're not likely to jump sharply in the coming months.

Demand is "relatively flat, which can mean airfare prices won't go crazy for summer," Seaney wrote. And oil prices have been stable to slightly declining. That's important because jet fuel is typically an airline's biggest expense and a major factor in pricing.

Seaney recommends buying tickets for early in the travel season, before July, or late, after the last week in August.

3. CROWDED PLANES

Don't expect flights this summer to have the luxury of an empty middle seat. Airlines are still setting records for "load factor," the percentage of seats they have filled.

That's because airlines have learned to keep capacity tight so they can avoid having to sell too many seats at discounted prices to fill them.

4. PACK LIGHT - REALLY LIGHT

Baggage fees are here to stay, and they're a major reason airlines have been able to eke out a profit even as jet fuel prices stay over $3 a gallon.

Avoid those fees if you can by using carry-on bags (Spirit Airlines charges up to $50 for a carry-on bag, but they're still alone on that fee). And you might get another perk: As more customers switch from checked to carry-on bags, airlines are trying to speed up boarding and save space in the overhead bins.

That means incentives for ultra-light packers. American Airlines recently announced that passengers with only a "personal item" such as a purse or laptop bag that fits under the seat in front of them will be able to board before most passengers.

5. GASOLINE PRICES LOWER

If you're driving instead of flying this summer, you might get some relief at the fuel pump.

AAA is predicting that gas prices will continue to stay low this summer. Stable production levels and demand could drive average national prices to between $3.20 and $3.40 a gallon, the company says. That's assuming there are no refinery issues or disruptive international news or weather events, however.

"Typically, gas prices will rise as we get deeper into summer, due to increased demand and hurricane season," said AAA spokeswoman Angela Daley. "We get 90 percent of our oil from the Gulf, so even the threat of a hurricane can drive up gas prices, as we saw last year.

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