10 Tips to Skirting Sky-High Airfare

NEW YORK (MainStreet) —Airfare certainly isn’t cheap. According to a report from the Federal Aviation Administration, increased demand, coupled with major airline mergers, will lead to higher tickets prices through 2012 and beyond.

To help you counteract the effects of these external factors, here are some surefire ways to skirt fees, find deals and score discounts so you don’t wind up paying top dollar:

Join a frequent-flier club.
“Sign up for a frequent-flier program if your airline of choice offers one,” says Andrew Schrage, co-owner of Money Crashers Personal Finance. These programs allow you to accrue miles against your flights that can be put toward future purchases.

If you’re able to qualify for the club’s elite status, which typically involves flying more than 25,000 miles a year, you may also be entitled to waived baggage fees, priority boarding, bonus miles, exclusive discounts and preferred seating or upgrades.

Get a co-branded credit card.
If you don’t fly frequently enough to join your favorite airline’s club, you could, instead, opt for its co-branded credit card.

“The airline credit cards are a great option” for those who frequent a single airline, live by a hub city or fly four or five times a year, since they help you earn miles towards future travel, Counter says. Some of the best products also allow cardholders to skirt baggage fees.

Additionally, “if you’re disciplined enough not to overspend, watch for travel credit cards with ridiculous deals attached,” says Donna Freedman, a Savings.com DealPro who also runs the blog Surviving and Thriving. But don’t overdo it: Opening too many credit cards in a short time can do some damage to your credit score.

Compare apples to apples.
Thanks to the fee boom, “a base fare is no longer the true measuring stick of the cost of your flight,” says Jami Counter, director of flights for travel review site TripAdvisor. As such, you have to make sure you’re considering all fees and surcharges when researching cheap airfare for your summer vacation.

TripAdvisor has a fee estimator that can be helpful in determining the true cost of a flight available on its website. It can be helpful in assessing baggage fees, meals and other in-flight services on domestic travel.

Fly a low-fee carrier.
Keep in mind, there are still a few low-cost carriers. These carriers may be an ideal option for no-frills travelers who don’t have a lot of time to research flights.

“Fly on JetBlue and you'll avoid paying for the first checked bag,” says George Hobica, an airline expert and founder of AirfareWatchdog.com. Southwest Airlines won’t charge you for a first and second checked bag if they don't weigh over 50 pounds. The carrier is also a great option for anyone looking to avoid ticket change fees.

Don’t try to break the rules.
While frustration with fees certainly may inspire rule-breaking, your bad behavior is likely going to cost you.

“Baggage fees have plateaued,” Counter says, which has made carriers all the more aware of the ways customers try to get around them. For instance, trying to cram too much into a single bag so you can avoid paying to check a second one is likely to lead to an oversized luggage fee, which tends to be higher than the one you were hoping to avoid.

Delta, for instance, charges $35 to check a second bag on a domestic flight, but $90 to check a bag that exceeds weight limitations. As such, you’re better off making sure your bag meets the airline’s requirement or resolving yourself to the fact that you’ll need to pack another one.

Pack light.
To avoid getting dinged by the high fee for oversized baggage, it’s important to research flight requirements. A good rule of thumb is to weigh your suitcase before heading to the airport to ensure it doesn’t weigh more than 50 pounds, a common weight limit among carriers.

“I always leave room in my carry-on [when checking a bag] in case I'm overweight, so I can take stuff out,” says Andrea Woroch, a consumer savings expert at Kinoli, a network of personal finance websites. You can also consider flying with only a carry-on to avoid the extra charge.

Ship your luggage.
You might also want to look into shipping your bag via UPS or FedEx to your destination instead of paying for it at airport check-in.

“In certain circumstances, it can be more affordable,” Counter says. These circumstances typically include particularly heavy or oversized pieces of luggage. It also helps if you’re able to send bags a few days ahead of your trip to avoid the high price of overnight shipping.

You can check out Hobica’s breakdown on shipping bags with delivery services versus checking them with the airport to get an idea of how and when this option can save you.

Avoid amenities …
Keep in mind, every amenity you ask for probably has a price attached, so frugal fliers will want to keep requests down to a minimum.

“These days, airlines charge for everything,” Woroch says. “Weigh out the cost versus value benefits of [each add-on].”

You may also want to consider alternatives. For instance, Woroch suggests bringing along a portable DVD player and free library DVD rentals as a substitute for the in-flight movie. You can also eat before heading to the airport and pack a few snacks to get you through the flight.

… and common fee traps.
While you probably know in-flight entertainment or sustenance will cost you, there are several other conveniences for which charges may not be so obvious.

For instance, “never book your travel over the phone, as some airlines charge as much as $25 for this,” Schrage says. You also may want to refrain from checking a bag curbside; this sometimes features a $2 upcharge.

Additionally, Hobica says consumers shouldn’t get so hung up on seat assignments.

“Don't be coerced into paying for a seat,” he says. “You'll get a seat eventually. If you're traveling with a small child or someone with special needs and really need to sit together, call the airline directly and explain the situation.”

Fly at the right time.
Finally, it pays to plan ahead. Flight prices are largely affected by demand, so certain days and times are more likely to carry lower fares. You can find out which dates are the most affordable in our roundup of the cheapest weekends to travel in 2012.

You can also find 10 ways to save on airfare, hotel accommodations and entertainment in our look at how to score affordable summer travel.

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