Competitive pressures mean that air travel is cheaper than ever — but airlines keen to turn a dollar are trying to make up the difference with a range of hidden charges. Here's some of the options you need to keep an eye out for.
If you're a dedicated bargain hunter, then there's nothing like the feeling of satisfaction that comes from getting an air fare for $1, or 10 pence, or whatever. However, if you're an experienced traveller, you'll know that's rarely the end of the story. By the time you've paid taxes, and baggage fees, and a range of other potential charges, your cheap fare may not be quite so cheap.
In Australia, it's actually illegal to advertise air fareswithout including taxes and other compulsory components. Similar regulations apply in many other parts of the world, but not everywhere, so make sure you've factored in all the potential extra expenses, especially if you've been researching online. Here's some key elements to watch out for.
No matter how cheap your fares, you'll invariably have to pay taxes and charges associated with flying, which normally include a combination of national government fees and charges specific to that airport. The scale of these can vary widely: for domestic flights, it's generally under $50 per segment, but that can ratchet up into the hundreds for international flights.
Very occasionally, airlines run promotions where they offer to "pay the taxes" themselves, but these are pretty infrequent.) Qantas' Frequent Flyer program includes an option where you can pay taxes on redeemed flights using additional points, but this is often a bad-value choice: spending an extra 3000 points to save $40 in taxes isn't the best way to get value from your points.
This is the most visible extra revenue source for Australian airlines, as both Virgin Blue and Jetstar now charge for any luggage that's checked onto planes. Those charges aren't particularly high ($8 and $10 respectively), but can mount up on a multi-sector journey. Even airlines which offer "free" checked luggage will charge for excessive amounts, so make sure you know what the limits are and stick with them. We're big believers in not travelling with checked luggage, but it's not always an option.
Overseas airlines can be even more onerous. Ryanair, for instance, has a strict 15 kilogram limit per passenger: you can pay extra to check extra bags, but that doesn't increase your total weight allowance. Each excess kilogram is charged at 15 pounds, meaning going a couple of kilos over can easily exceed the price of your ticket.
Other odd charges
Ryanair serves as an extreme example of just how far airlines will go with an extra-fee policy. Until recently, you had to pay a fee to check in at the airport. You can also pay extra money for priority boarding, and the airline has suggested it might charge for access to toilets on its planes in the future.
Those options haven't shown up in Australia yet, but others have. For instance, getting an exit row seat for extra leg room now often involves paying an additional fee.
Credit card charges
Many airlines will charge you a fee for using a credit card to pay, either as a fixed amount per passenger or (more rarely) a percentage of the total. In theory, you can avoid these charges by using BPAY or a similar "direct from bank account" option, but that may not be an option if you're using a non-Australian airline. Tickets charged in a foreign currency will also incur a conversion fee on most credit cards, though there isn't much you can do about this in practice.
Getting to the airport
Especially when you're overseas, it's worth bearing in mind that getting to the airport can in itself be a costly exercise. In Europe especially, cheap airlines have expanded their footprint by using former military bases newly converted to commercial operation, which often aren't especially close to the cities they advertise. Though these will generally be served by public transport, it can be costly (London's Stansted airport, for instance, is a pricey choice by train). In Australia, check our guide to public transport options for airports to save money.
Got any other cost-cutting strategies for bargain air tickets? Share them in the comments.
Lifehacker Australia editor Angus Kidman wouldn't necessarily object to paying a fee for using on-plane toilets. His Road Worrier column, looking at technology and organising tips for travellers, appears each week on Lifehacker.