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TODAY contributor
updated 5/11/2008 10:17:04 AM ET 2008-05-11T14:17:04

A downward economy, soaring fuel prices and a dollar beaten up by the British pound and the euro. So, what do the airlines do in response? Do they raise prices? No, they initiate every conceivable surcharge, fee and rule to generate revenue.

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What does this mean? The airlines are officially remaining competitive in terms of airline ticket prices, but in reality, those prices are artificial, since what you'll really pay could be a whole lot more.

Here is a look at the new charges, some of which you can't avoid, but need to know about in order to budget the true cost of your flight.

Fuel surcharges
Just about every U.S. and a number of foreign airlines are introducing fuel surcharges. Northwest has boosted its surcharge on some international flights to $320. That’s not the fare, that's the surcharge! The same goes for British Airways, which increased its current fuel surcharge on international flights to as much as $306 round-trip. This may not necessarily be included in the official advertised fare, so budget accordingly.

Buying a ticket
Unless you're buying online, talking to a human being will cost you. American is charging $20 to buy a ticket at the airport. If you're lucky enough to be able to redeem a frequent-flier award, Delta is now assessing a $25 handling charge.

Ticket-change fee
Does it really cost the airlines money if you change your reservation after you purchase your tickets? Of course not, but where there's an opportunity to charge you, the airlines will now take it. United Airlines hiked the already high fee it charges passengers to change tickets from $100 to $150. It also raised fares as much as 5 percent.

Pets and children
If you’re flying with Fido or Fluffy, be prepared for a big charge. If you want to fly with your dog or cat in the cabin, that will now cost you $100 on many airlines.

How about unaccompanied minors, kids flying alone? Some airlines just increased that charge as well.

Delta just increased the fee to check bags with a skycap at the curb to $3 per bag. Keep in mind that the money you pay to the skycap doesn't go to the skycap, but the airline, so tip accordingly. Unfortunately, it gets worse.

The real whammy is the second checked-bag fee. First announced by United Airlines, now US Air, American and most other major carriers have instituted a $25 fee for checking a second bag. United and the other airlines have now convincingly made my argument for me; courier your bags instead (I send mine through FedEx, but there are about 16 other door-to-door services that will do this for your bags).

This just kicked in this week, and American starts charging soon. Remember, the airlines used to lose my bags free of charge. Now, why would I want to pay $25 to misroute my luggage?

If your bag is considered oversized, be prepared to part with $150.

Fighting back
Here are two solid money-saving strategies that work.

A number of airlines, including United, have brought back the dreaded Saturday-night stay requirement on many tickets. These minimum-stay rules are hated by every business traveler I know. In the 1990s, I was one of those who actively fought against this draconian rule, which stated that discount airline tickets required you to stay over a Saturday night, effectively discriminating against business travelers or those who couldn't stay over that weekend night, forcing them to pay dramatically higher fares.

United announced it is reinstating the Saturday-night stay rule on all tickets where it competes head to head with other major carriers, which will essentially effect 65 percent of the markets in which United flies

With the reinstatement of the rule, a discount fare that might cost you $250 (but only if you stay over that Saturday night) will now zoom to nearly $800 or more if you don't act quickly. Here's my advice: As long as the airlines are bringing back the Saturday-night stay rule, let me reintroduce you to something the airlines dread — the back-to-back ticket.

Airlines hate it when I talk about this, but too bad. This is a way to beat the airlines at their own game playing by theirrules! Let's say you want to fly two weeks from today between New York and San Francisco. The fare, if you stay over a Saturday night, might be $350. But if you can't stay over that Saturday night, you could be hosed for more than $1,200. Here’s a really simple solution.

Call the airline (or do this online) and make one reservation for a flight leaving New York on May 26 and coming back two weeks later, thus qualifying for the Saturday-night deal, for $350. Then make a second reservation for a San Francisco to New York round-trip, leaving San Francisco on May 29, the day you really wanted to return, officially flying back to San Francisco two weeks later.

That's another $350, because in each case you officially stayed over a Saturday night. So, for $700, or about $500 less than what the airline wanted to charge you for one ticket, you get two round-trips. If you plan accordingly, you get two trips out of the deal, and double the mileage. Even if you don't use the return portions of your two tickets, you've saved nearly $500. For those in the airline business who will inevitably charge me for violating their rules, I strongly argue that I have done no such thing. I am flying on tickets I purchased legitimately, under my own name and on the dates and times specified on the tickets. If I choose not to use the return portions on any of those original tickets, that has always been my prerogative.

Last but not least, an unexpected irony about supposed low-cost airlines and their airfares. Lately, they cannot be low-cost airlines, and therefore they cannot be low-fare airlines. As a result, you could actually benefit from this.

You can't be a low-cost airline if you have to buy your fuel at the same, or in some cases, higher, prices that everyone else pays. As a result, JetBlue, Southwest, Spirit and Air Tran have all raised fares. Here's the surprise: On a growing number of routes, and this is just one example, American Airlines has lower fares than Southwest! So be a comparison shopper: Check the low-cost carriers, than check the legacy carriers, just in case.

Peter Greenberg is TODAY’s Travel editor. His column appears weekly on TODAYshow.com. Visit his Web site at PeterGreenberg.com. 


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