Nowadays, buying a plane ticket requires legwork, and what you see is hardly ever what you get. Typically, the first price listed is just the base fare, followed by extra charges for taxes and fees. With many airlines now using an a-la-carte pricing strategy, your airfare could then include additional fees for making the reservation itself, checking baggage, and in-flight snacks and entertainment, among other services.
As such, comparing final prices between providers has never been more important. You may see comparable base prices between two airlines, for example, but because of additional fees, you can find surprisingly varied total costs.
So, what's the best way to approach these often-confusing differences? In short, some time investment and a willingness to crunch numbers are critical. Be open to comparing several providers offering similar base prices: You may find that a lower base price from one carrier turns out to be the worst deal once all extra charges are added in. And likewise, a higher base price from a carrier that has fewer fees may turn out to be a decent deal for your trip.
I compared a few trips to show you how fees and extras can affect your final price.
I wanted to set up a test-traveler scenario, seeing what an individual traveler would find on three different popular airline routes. I used Travelocity's Flex-Date search tool to find the cheapest times to travel on these three different round-trip flights, then narrowed the travel dates further based on the search results. I looked at flights on the same departing and return days, taking all taxes and fees into account. Then, using SmarterTravel's Airline Fees: The Ultimate Guide chart, I had the test traveler book online, choose his or her seat online, and check one bag at the airport. Once on board, my traveler had a snack and watched a movie (except on Southwest, which does not offer in-flight entertainment). I calculated fees for baggage, snacks, and movies twice, as the traveler would require these services for both departing and returning flights. The results may surprise you.
Chicago to Orlando in mid-August
Travelocity's flex search indicated the lowest fares from Chicago to Orlando were available in August, with AirTran, American, and United coming in at $158 round-trip. I then compared those fares to the same route on JetBlue and Southwest. Taking our test traveler into consideration, I found the following round-trip prices per person, taking all taxes, fees, services, and amenities into account:
- Southwest: $179
- AirTran: $221
- Code-share flight—United for the departing flight, American for the return: $247
- American: $250
- JetBlue: $436
In this case, Southwest, the low-cost, "no fees" airline, came out on top. Interestingly, JetBlue, an airline with a similar low-cost/low-fee structure, had such a high base price that the legacy airlines ending up being a better deal. Despite all their extra fees, the legacy carriers undercut JetBlue by nearly $200.
New York City to Los Angeles in mid-September
The flex-date search indicated that American, United, and Virgin America had round-trip prices from $218 in mid-September. I then compared the same route on JetBlue and Southwest. Again, using our test traveler's flights, fees, and services, the totals came to:
- JetBlue: $249
- American: $289
- Virgin America: $303
- Southwest: $307
- United: $336
In this test case, contrasting the previous route, JetBlue came out as the lowest-priced airline, besting the next-cheapest competitor by $40. And Southwest, despite its "no hidden fees" status, had a significantly higher base fare than JetBlue, American, and Virgin America, leading it to be not the wisest option for this particular route.
Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., in early September
Testing open-ended dates showed early September to be an affordable time to travel from Los Angeles to D.C. Alaska, American, and United showed round-trip fares of $218 per person, which I then compared to JetBlue and Southwest's offerings. Our test traveler's round-trip flight, checked luggage, snacks, and movies totaled:
- American: $289
- Alaska: $293
- Southwest: $320
- United: $346
- JetBlue: $390
In this case, neither of the low-cost/low-fee airlines offered the best deal. Even with the fees, American and Alaska offered comparable cheap prices, just under $300 apiece.
Your Upcoming Trip
As you can see, there's no across-the-board, one-size-fits-all answer to finding a cheap flight. If anything, the a-la-carte pricing model and new fees have made finding a good deal even more complicated. Two good rules of thumb: Don't assume an airline's prices are cheaper just because it doesn't charge fees, and don't instantly book with an airline that promises few fees. You must compare prices across all types of airlines to make sure you're getting the best deal.
For your upcoming trip, use a flex-search tool if your travel dates aren't set in stone, or track airfares in advance using a site such as SmarterTravel sister site Airfarewatchdog or Bing Travel (formerly Farecast) to get a sense of what you can expect to pay for your trip. Then, take stock of what you'll plan to do before you buy (Check baggage? Bring along a pet? Use in-flight entertainment or Wi-Fi?) and familiarize yourself with our fees chart. You can also use the new TripAdvisor flight search tool (also a sister site of SmarterTravel), which allows you to include most fees in your price comparisons. Then, you can accurately calculate the real cost of fares from each airline, and find the true cheapest option for your flight.
Do you have a strategy for comparing true costs across airlines when booking a trip? Have you found one airline to offer consistently decent prices for your travel, fees or no fees? Share your tips and travel advice by submitting a comment below!