Budget Travel Rants – Round One

Southwest Airlines Gate Agent

It should come as no shock that I love almost every aspect of travel. I love killing time in airports, watching people scurry past with their Cinnabon purchases in hand and browsing magazine selections at the CNBC Newsstand. Even though I have an unabashed love affair with the hospitality industry, lately I have been sensing some waves of animosity in our relationship.

In a series of three posts over the next few weeks, I am going to examine some of the disruptions in the relationship between traveler and hospitality provider. Rather than just rant, which I promise I will do, I will also look at some solutions from BOTH sides at how to make our relationship a more healthy one. We can’t divorce – it’s too late for that now, but we have to do something to ensure a long and happy future together.

Everyone complains about the airlines and they probably always have. I can just imagine passengers in the “golden age” of flight turning to their seatmate lamenting the poor quality of china onboard the aircraft. It all comes down to one’s expectations and the airlines have done a masterful job of lowering them over the past couple of decades.

Even if you take into account the fact that the airlines have never and will never be able to catch a public relations break, it seems of late that they have been lashing out at the very people who make their companies viable.

The airlines have been poking the flying public in the eyes a lot lately, especially when it comes to their unholy addiction to fees.

I understand the fact that the airlines exist on a slim profit margin and respect the fact that the have to make money. I am a capitalist and understand economics – yay money. And unlike a lot of other people, I have never expected the airlines to transport me to my destinations free of charge. However, what I do expect is a little financial respect when it comes to pricing.

Recently, I booked a flight to Florida for a long weekend escape. Like all travelers, I was instantly met with a plethora of booking options on everything from super discount carriers to the most entrenched legacy lines. In order to find the best route at the best price, I had to enter into a series of quantum and hypothetical mathematics in order to divine the mysterious algorithm that would transport me from Washington, D.C. to Jacksonville, Florida. No longer simply a matter of going to Expedia and plugging in one’s preferred travel dates, due to the ever expanding variety of fees a whole new method of searching flights has been born.

Jacksonville AirportI had to make a list (on real paper nonetheless) of baggage fees, BOARDING fees (ugh), restrictions, etc. At first blush I thought I had quickly and painlessly found the perfect flight. It was only cheap though if I didn’t take into consideration the $150 extra we would have to pay in baggage fees. After this initial setback, I realized that my search would not be an easy one and I began a lengthy process of differentiating between the remaining airlines’ fees and route schedules. Just as a reminder, I wasn’t trying to find the easiest way to Ulan Bator, all I wanted was to transport two people, two bags and a set of golf club two hours down the Eastern seaboard.

After spending more time than I’d like to admit to, and with the aid of tarot cards, coin flipping and dart throwing, I finally found what I HOPED was the cheapest option.  But even then I was not completely satisfied that I was not overlooking a hidden fee.

I love to fly, I travel a lot and always book my own airfare. However, it’s not usually with checked bags and certainly not with golf clubs. When confronted with booking airfare the same way any family embarking on a vacation would have to, I was stymied.  The virtual morass of fees, hidden and not, were absolutely daunting and I can only shudder to think what the average tourist must go through. What probably happens to these poor souls is that in their attempt to save money and book the cheapest airfare they can find, they end up getting financially molested at the airport.

Is this any way to treat the people who ensure the sustainability of the airlines? To trick them into forcibly donating more of their hard earned coin? I know the airlines don’t want to hear this, but fees MUST be folded into ticket prices. They just have to. New ones are added daily, everything from exit row seating to blankets, and it has frankly become too much to handle. So dear airlines, you all need to meet at some posh resort and settle upon an industry-wide standard where all of your cute little fees are included in the main ticket price.

I realize this will never happen, but it would truly be in the airlines’ best interest to make air travel as painless and easy an experience as possible. The average person, I have to constantly remind myself, does not travel all that often. In fact most of them are scared to even attempt it, in large part due to some of these monetary shenanigans. The airlines absolutely must encourage people to travel more often, not less, and making the ticketing/fee process easy to understand and affordable is the first, best thing they can do to achieve this goal.

I don’t want this to be a post picking on the airlines. There is plenty of culpability on behalf of the flying public. Ultimately, our quest for the cheapest ticket at any cost drove the airlines to take the route of fees. In days of old, people would pick flights based on airline allegiance, comfort and route. Now people are willing to live through the inconvenience of 2 inch seat pitch and 4 connections to save $30.

The genie is out of the bottle and I doubt there is a way to convince most of the flying people to stop choosing the lowest common denominator. But this method of travel is not sustainable and I would surmise that we will see a bit of a return to some flying comforts in the not-too-distant future. Some airlines, such as Southwest and Virgin, have realized this and have made profits while simultaneously treating the flying public well. Novel concept.

By: Matt Long

Matt has a true passion for travel. As someone who has a bad case of the travel bug, Matt travels the world in order to share tips on where to go, what to see and how to experience the best the world has to offer.

18 thoughts on “Budget Travel Rants – Round One”

  1. You’re right: it is absolutely in their best interest. If fares/fees continue to mount, American travelers will finally begin to opt for that long-neglected mode of transport — the train!

  2. I keep wondering when the airlines are going to start charging people based on their weight and the weight of their stuff. While this scares me, I think it would be easier if there was a flat rate for every 10 pounds. Then, a person weighing 180 pounds and carrying a 10 pound carry-on and a 40 pound suitcase would be charged for 230 pounds since that is all that the space that person is taking up. This would help airlines estimate how much fuel they would need, too. Basically, we are just packages being transported not much differently than the FedEx packages. However, I’m sure that the vast majority of travelers would balk at being put on a scale like cattle before boarding the plane.

    Anyway, I just wonder how much more the airline industry is going to require of its passengers in order to fly. Other than giving a blood sample and promising my first-born child, it doesn’t seem like flying could get much worse in terms of customer service.

  3. Matt I have to say that this is one of my pet peeves as well! I fly Southwest as often as possible for this very reason. I do not travel light so bag fees are dreaded. The lack of change fees is another bonus. I live in Phoenix which is one of their hubs so they cover most of my domestic trips. Unfortunately this has worked so well for the airlines that cruise lines and hotels are also adding fees right and left. Don’t these companies realize that the traveling public pay their bills? Picking your customer’s pockets is no way to gain long term fans!

  4. I agree. I think it’s a little dishonest to hide fees until the counter when customers think they are only paying a certain amount. By the time they get to the counter, the airlines have them by the balls forcing them to pay to continue on their trip giving them no other alternative. Southwest is a very smart company. They get it. I trust them. I only wish the other airlines would follow suit.

  5. You are right on about fees! Another one that varies widely by airline and circumstance is the fee to change a flight. Not only is it inconsistent, but exorbitant in most cases. The fear of a future need to change a flight (and be charged) is what keeps me making last minute flight decisions – waiting until I am 90% sure I’ve got my schedule in order. Unfortunately, my schedule is often subject to change.

    United Airlines really surprised me, pleasantly, when they got rid of the change fees associated with mileage award travel. Yay for that! You can change the flight time or day as long as you don’t change the itinerary when you book using miles. Of course, there are not as many flight options to select and it doesn’t solve the problem of trying to make air travel accessible and affordable to people who are not frequent fliers.

  6. ok, having worked for an airline, I am going to share a secret with you that might get me kicked off the next 12 flights I get on, but I think it’s time everyone knows the truth.

    In 2000, it cost the airlines twenty-five cents to ship you, but $40.00 to ship a bag. Adusted for inflation, it’s still no more then $50.00 to ship you and your bags together. Therefore, $25.00 bag fee is generous allowence, but it should be included in your ticket price.

    Several years ago, airlies started the a la carte fee increases as a way to hide their upcharging and price fixing due to the increase in fuel prices. This is no longer a problem. Mathematically, airlines are just fine for profit. It’s all about what they show you, or the accounting method they choose. With the exception of perhaps American, and the European airlines that are in trouble because of laws forcing them to refund customers for delays in flying due to volcanoes, many airlines would be shutting down left and right if they were that hard for profit as they want us to believe.

    The reason airlines can charge fees a la carte is, well, because they can. When consumers demand fair fee disclosures, the airlines will abide, just as they did when consumers were looking for rock bottom fares. Demand to know what you get with your ticket, and demand that some things be included. Is it so wrong to expect that you get a drink and cookie, but opt out of paying for a blanket if you’ve brought your coat? Perfectly reasonable, so write to your airlines, over and over and over again, and let them know what you want.

  7. Matt, I agree with you about eliminating the parsing of fees and just rolling it into ticket price. But I can’t see it happening. Consumers would be turned off by the seemingly more expensive ticket prices (though they’re actually the same) and the airlines would lose revenue. The fee system is a cheap tactic. Yet another broken system. (Apologies for the negativity).

    1. You are absolutely right and while I would love for the airlines to get together and simply agree to eliminate fees, I realize that for anti-trust/collusion reasons this is impossible. But who knows, maybe the legacy lines will be inspired by Southwest.

  8. One of the latest fee options about to be tried in Europe is to charge people to go to the toilet on Ryanair flights. Thats got some fun press but looks like it will happen. Pricing is not going to go back to what it was (everything in one price) but what I want to see (and only the best companies seem to do this) is clear pricing so I know what I’m getting and how much its costs for each add on. Lots of companies seem to think they can hide these extra fees and trick you into paying them and they’re the ones that will hopefully go away.

  9. We’re with ya. It gets so frustrating to see a “hot deal” for a plane ticket… and often times the fees wind up costing two or three times MORE than the ticket itself.

    That would be like going to buy a car, and they say, oh, we’ll have to tack on another fee to include doors and headlights.

    Just include it all in the price. It’s way more convenient and it will actually endear the airlines to generally unhappy customers.

    Then again, I guess anything is better than Ryanair.

  10. Being Canadian, our airlines don’t exclude fees so in the beginning when I booked international travel I was shocked when I arrived at the airport and there were fees (looking at you Ryanair).

    Do you know if Expedia and other travel sites include these fees?

  11. Amen!
    I find travelling prep more frustrating than exciting – there are so many things to look out for, particularly airline fees. The air fees are sometimes the single big expenditure, or close second, so it kind of gets irritating to never really know how much it’s actually going to cost and having to search hours for something that seems like a deal, but that isn’t really because of the fees.

    I pray for the day when flight costs will be displayed as a single, fixed amount.
    But I guess we’re dreaming in colours.

  12. US travellers have it really bad compared to the rest of the world. Everywhere else, bags are free on major airlines and cost extra on budget airlines. In many places, the government forces airlines to advertise prices as the minimum possible price, ie. with any compulsory fees and taxes folded in. The service is generally better outside the US too.

  13. Actually all airlines should not be charging travelers extra money for some extra luggage. They should restrict the luggage to a certain limit allowing a little more than that limit in case the luggage is a little over-weight. This way the clients will feel satisfied while flying by those airlines.Thanks for sharing.

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