Airfares are on the rise, and searching for the best bargain can be time-consuming. But if you've ever sacrificed a direct flight or prime layover for a cheaper fare, you may have been surprised at the fees that still jacked up the overall price.
But those fees don't have to be a mystery. Whether you're the king of checking baggage or the queen of changing tickets, whether you like your blankets free or don't mind packing your own snacks, knowing what an airline will charge to match your style can matter as much as where you fly.
Recognize How You Fly
As someone who often travels with only carry-on luggage, I have yet to pay a checked-baggage fee. But had I flown Spirit (SAVE), my carry-on-only policy would have backfired. While many airlines will allow a small carry-on item and one personal bag free of charge, the sizes and weights of the items allowed vary widely by airline. Spirit and Allegiant (ALGT), meanwhile, are the only two airlines in the United States to charge for carry-ons. Spirit recently sparked a backlash over its decision to raise its fee for carry-on items checked at the gate to $100.
Need to change your ticket? Get hungry on a flight? Tend to get chilly? Everything is fair game for a fee, from rebooking to snacks to blankets and pillows, and there is no industry standard.
Adding Up the Whole Bill
While some discount-airfare websites are great at comparing fares, they do little to show you the actual cost of your flight. It's not the websites' fault; airlines routinely refuse to release this information to travel sites, denying customers a full picture of what they'll pay. But most of the information is out there if you know where to hunt, and researching it can pay off.
Smarter Travel and Kayak have both compiled lists of the various fees charged by airlines. Both break down the fees item by item, allowing you to calculate who's offering the best overall fare for your trip. Smarter Travel offers a handy chart of the main fees across all airlines, making comparison a snap. Kayak offers airline-specific information, giving you the option to check out a particular airline once you have a fare in mind. (Kayak's list is harder to navigate, but it's worth the effort.)
'Getting There' Means More Than Landing at the Airport
Once you've found a flight that suits you, sorted out what you'll need to get through the airport, and checked into your flight with the least amount of hassle and cost, there's one last thing you might want to consider: what you'll do once you get there.
5 Money-Smart Apps for Business Travelers
3 More Travel Tips for Keeping the Cost of Your Flight in Check
1. Foursquare.com. This is the original check-in app. More recently, the company has been teaming with merchants to offer just-in-time deals when you're near a restaurant or shop. And thanks to a broad-based partnership with American Express (AXP), some outlets now offer instant rebates on purchases made with a registered Amex credit card. The downside? You'll need to stay flexible about where you eat and shop in order to collect the most savings, but Foursquare's discovery tools -- such as finding popular spots or locales recommended by friends -- should make the hunt more tolerable, and perhaps even fun.
2. HelloWallet.com. A rising competitor to Intuit's (INTU) Mint, HelloWallet doesn't use ads and charges individuals $9 per month. (Pricing varies for companies who choose to buy subscriptions in bulk for their employees.) All the basic tools for personal financial planning are included: transaction tracking, financial trendspotting, and budgeting. Business travelers in particular might benefit from HelloWallet's location-based spending guidance. Input a budget and use the iPhone app, and HelloWallet will help you "spend" according to plan and what you've spent at that locale previously.
3. TurboScan. As the name implies, TurboScan turns a smartphone into a "scanner" for documents (cough -- receipts -- cough) using a built-in camera. Adjust the image and output as a PDF file for expense reporting. There is a cost, however: TurboScan costs $1.99 in the iTunes App Store. Users nevertheless love the app, with 1,593 contributing to a five-star average rating.
4. Cardmunch.com. While it's tempting to focus on savings, we shouldn't forget that executives travel to broker revenue-generating deals. Cardmunch, a service of LinkedIn (LNKD), is designed to help file the business cards. As with TurboScan, users transform their smartphone camera into a scanner to capture card details. Photos are then sent to the service, where they are transcribed and made available for use in any contact management program. And of course, LinkedIn profile data is included automatically.
5. Kayak.com. It's a search engine that specializes in finding cheap flights, hotels and rental cars that automatically comparison-shops across services. Think of it as an aggregator that scans the entire Internet to find deals. Users can also set price alerts to be notified when ticket prices to their favorite destinations rise or drop dramatically. In addition, the iPhone app contains airport information, contact numbers for major airlines, tour information, and a currency exchange calculator.
Beware the Digital Straitjacket
Whatever apps you use, keep in mind that not all deals are created equal. For example, group-buying deals from the likes of Groupon (GRPN) and Google (GOOG) tend to feature limitations that specify where and when you get to use them. Business travelers, of course, tend to need flexibility in using savings deals.
Few things are worse than going to a lot of trouble to save money on airfare only to spend it all on a cab getting to and from your hotel or final destination. If you're heading to an urban area, check to see if there are subway, light rail, or other mass-transit options. Cheaper than a cab, these options are often also faster, especially if you're traveling underground when the streets above are frozen by gridlock. Time it right, and you may even get to your hotel in time for the early-bird dinner.