How Much Is that Cheap Flight Really Costing You?

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Travelers looking to save costs have long sought out the best time to buy airfare, the best way to maximize points, how to find the best credit cards, use the best apps and even make the most of a hotel stay.

But while hidden fees can derail a trip's budget, so too can deceptively cheap rates. Travelers who book on a budget airline may be surprised to find the savings can be marginal -- even nonexistent.

Cut-Rate Fare

Travelers snapping up a rock-bottom rate in May on Norwegian Air from New York's Kennedy International Airport to Oslo, Norway, thought they were getting a deal. The inaugural international flight of the previously European-only airliner offered rates so low many people on board thought they had caught the airline in a typo.

The fare seemed too good to be true, at $332 one-way to Oslo, with $70 add-on for seat selection, one checked bag and a meal.

But it wasn't long into the flight that I and other travelers realized the cut-rate price came with cut-rate service. On the overnight, trans-Atlantic flight, the only water offered was sold in bottles, the only meals and snacks were sold at high prices to those who had ordered in advance (and several passengers who paid were denied meals). And entertainment, blankets and newspapers were merely a dream while enduring a fitful sleep in the incessantly bright cabin.

Although the airline continues to run ads on its site for the $332 fare, round-trip flights on the budget airline in August from JFK to Oslo will set a traveler back $1,332.

Compare this experience to that offered by British Airways. Its flights include meals made by professional chefs, one of the highest free-baggage allowances among all carriers, free seat selection, in-seat entertainment and hassle-free check-in -- all standard.

So how much does an all-inclusive flight from JFK to Oslo cost on British Airways on the same dates in August? $1,371. A mere $39 more than Norwegian Air's fare.

The Cost of Comfort

While most people wouldn't think of a discount carrier and a legacy carrier as offering comparable fares, it's best to look beyond the initial sticker price when shopping around.

"It used to be 10 years ago the base fare was the base fare," says Jami Counter, senior business director at TripAdvisor. "Airlines have made it really confusing for the customer about all the add-ons and the fees they're going to be charged. And this is deliberate."

Counter says airlines have embraced the concept of branding themselves and their flight offerings, but many of those claims are simply smoke and mirrors, including the $70 upgrade fee on Norwegian Air that failed to deliver.

US Airways is another culprit of the misleading add-on fees, Counter says. "When you're paying extra for a choice seat on US Airways, you might think you're getting something extra, like legroom or premium seating, but you're really not. It's just slightly further up the aisle."

American Airlines also offers seat upgrades for a fee, but according to its website, these seats can contain up to six extra inches of legroom for prices beginning at $8. United Airlines also offers seats near the front of economy class for an extra fee, but doesn't make claims about specific inches of additional legroom.

Seat fees and upgrades are becoming part of the list of add-ons that many airlines include. Before paying, it's wisest to learn what exactly the airline is offering in return.

To help travelers understand just what they're getting on various airlines, TripAdvisor has launched SeatGuru, a site that compares airlines by legroom, in-flight entertainment options, meals and more.

When's a Cheap Fare Worth It?

Travelers onboard the discounted Norwegian flight to Oslo could have packed their own meals, brought their own blankets and entertainment and lugged aboard enough bottled water to stay hydrated on the trans-Atlantic flight. Packing light and not being fussy about seat selection would have saved another few extra dollars.

Even with those fare-minimizing moves, though, poor service, cramped legroom and the inability to sleep might not have been worth the savings.

For the occasional flier on a short, domestic flight, such problems may be trivial. Counter, the travel expert, says the breaking point is usually a cross-country or international flight. "If it's a two-hour flight, the amenities and on-board service are much less important than if you're taking an eight-hour or 12-hour overseas flight."

And in such cases, arriving happy and well-rested can be priceless.

Molly McCluskey is a contributing writer for The Motley Fool.


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