The agony of determining what a flight really costs

You may have noticed your correspondent has been missing in action for a few weeks. A host of health and personal matters have been in the way, but I'm back now with a fresh take on the most important air-travel issue of our time: What does it really cost to take an airline flight these days, considering the fees that you may be hit with as you make plans or while you're on your trip. Here's what I'm talking about, based on personal experience, and later in this post I'll link to some others' writings with the same theme.

My story: I needed to make a last-minute roundtrip to reach my ailing 98-year-old mother's bedside during her final days. I faced what many business travelers and those in my situation face every day. I had just an hour or so to make a decision on which airline to use. Using Expedia, I found a lot of choice, with roundtrip fares from around $300 to well over $700. Would it be the apparently low $298 price on Delta that involved connections both ways, or my usual default choice, Southwest (default, of course, because of virtrually no fees), at closer to $600 roundtrip? Among the considerations, the outbound Southwest flight was nonstop so that was a plus since I needed to get there fast.The total flight times on Delta on the return were a little shorter than Southwest's lowest-priced choices. But with that much apparent difference in the fare, it would seem that Delta should get my business.

Oh, but wait. What about fees that could mean the real cost would be different, perhaps a lot different? I didn't have to worry about checked bag fees in either direction since this would be a short trip with a single carry-on. On Southwest, the only one was the optional "early bird checkin" fee of $10 that puts you among the first 60 or so to board a flight. Before buying from Delta, however, I discovered that when buying only 24 hours ahead, my lack of frequent-flier status on the airline meant that there seemed to be no way to reserve a seat. It looked as if I would be randomly assigned a middle seat on all four legs of the trip.

After a good 10 minutes of drilling down in the Delta Web site (I had earlier given up trying to scope out Delta fees on Expedia.), I found some information, but it was practically useless. The airline appeared to be saying that after buying a ticket, I might be able to purchase an upgrade to a "preferred seat," one on a widow or aisle toward the front of the cabin -- if there were any left after any last-minute frequent-flier demand was met. The cost for these "better" seats: $9 to $99 per segment, the site said. So what was I really going to wind up paying if I wanted to rest my arthritic old body in an aisle seat where I could get up and stretch when I needed? Was it going to be an extra $36 or might it be another $396? And I really had to work hard to even find out that much.

You can guess what I chose. I paid the higher fare on Southwest and was able to sit in an aisle seat on each flight, despite being in the "B" boarding group outbound because I had not had enough advance-purchase time to use early bird checkin. Did I pay more than I could have on Delta? Yes, perhaps a good bit more, but I didn't really care.The lack of transparency in what my trip on Delta would really cost wound up costing it not only my money on this trip but perhps a lot more on future travel. I was so frustrated and disgusted that I certtainly won't consider it first on my next trip. If Delta wants to tell me how I failed to be a smart consumer in using its Web site, I'll listen. Or maybe not. I'm so tired of this run-around, aren't you?

There are even more reasons today validating an observation I made in Inquirer travel columns several times in years past: There are too many airlines that their customers may need to use, but they do not like, respect or trust them.

The U.S. Department of Transportation currently is working on consumer-protection rules airlines would have to follow in clearly displaying all fees a customer has to pay for a ticket before buying it. Below this entry, there are links to several articles on this DOT effort and the need for it in previous postings, moslty in June and July. Here you will find the latest story from the travel trade press on questions about airline behavior on this topic raised by one of the crusaders on this topic, Charle Leocha of the Consumer Travel Alliance.