Airfare Comparisons Complicated by Fee-for-All Pricing

USA Today has just released details of its airline fee survey, a handy snapshot of the current state of what many travelers still refer to as nuisance fees.

Of the many types of surcharges, the highest fees are those imposed for changing an international ticket. Delta's change fees can be as much as $400. American and United's top out at $300. All three charge $200 to change a domestic ticket.

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The low-cost carriers are better. JetBlue charges between $75 and $150 to change an international ticket, and Spirit charges $115 if the change is made online and $125 if made by phone.

Southwest is the standout, with no change fees at all.

The article notes that 15 U.S. airlines reported revenue of $2.1 billion from reservations change fees during the first three quarters of 2013.

The fees to book flights by phone range from $0 (Southwest again) to $35 (Delta, for an international booking) to $100 (Spirit, to book within six days of departure).

The fees for the first checked bag also run the gamut. American, Delta, and United charge $25 for a domestic flight, but nothing for international flights. Spirit charges as much as $100 for both domestic and overseas flights. Southwest and JetBlue don't charge for the first checked bag.

U.S. airlines made $2.6 billion in bag fees during the first three quarters of 2013.

The next time you hear an economist claim that the price of an airline ticket is a bargain, ask whether they've factored in the cost of services which were once included in the ticket price but are now charged separately. They probably haven't. And not for lack of trying. It's simply too complicated.

And therein lies the problem for travelers trying to price-compare airfares. In the time it takes to compute the real cost of a ticket, including the various add-ons, the base price will have changed.

Reader Reality Check

Have you learned to love the airlines' fees-for-everything approach to pricing, or do you feel it's little more than a license to gouge and disguise the true cost of a ticket?

This article originally appeared on FrequentFlier.com.

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