Best travel prices? Book early, Yuba-Sutter agents say
From hidden fees and bagging charges to mergers and fluctuating ticket prices, airline travel can be a complex web for travelers who aren't familiar with the ever-changing industry.
Area travel agents say age-old tips like planning early and booking as far in advance as possible are still prudent, even with changes seeming to pop up during every airport visit.
With change and cancellation fees ranging up to hundreds of dollars, Four Seasons Travel owner Chrystal Williams said it's important to plan ahead.
"Booking early and being sure of your travel plans (are important), because everyone but Southwest has a penalty for changing," she said.
Plans can change, however, and the Yuba City businesswoman said working with a travel agent can pay dividends if an itinerary needs tweaking. Unless plans are booked through an airline like Delta or United, finding a person to talk to online might be a painful process.
"When you start using the Internet, you're on your own and you better read the fine print," Williams said, pointing out the fact consumers often think they are grabbing the cheapest fares without realizing fees imposed by sites like Travelocity and Expedia to turn a profit.
Using a credit card to make international reservations online can also result in surprising out-of-country transaction fees, Kahlon Travel Services operations manager Nivjit Kahlon said.
"When you make a booking, you couldn't see that," he said, adding local agencies offer advantages like the explanation of refund procedures and competitive price matching.
Domestically, rising fuel costs and tight margins also have most airlines passing on costs to travelers via baggage fees running up to $35 each way on domestic flights, said Conie Stevens, owner at Destinations Travel in Yuba City.
"We still have clients who seem to be taken by surprise when we remind them (of fees)," she said.
Other money-saving tips Stevens recommends include checking Tuesdays and Wednesdays for cheaper flights and researching secondary or alternative airports. Fort Lauderdale, Fla., is about 17 miles from Miami and might offer a better deal for travelers willing to drive a little further, she said.
A big change on the horizon, however, could lead to four companies — Delta, United, American and Southwest — controlling more than 80 percent of the nation's flights.
The proposed merger between US Airways and American Airlines could result in higher fares and fewer flights for consumers, Williams, Stevens and Kahlon warned.
"They'll have more of a monopoly to keep everybody under control," Williams said.
Stevens said the change could be "devastating" for travelers, presenting concerns about staffing, customer service and competition levels.
"If one airline would offer a $150 fare, in the olden days, then within hours the others were doing a price match," she said.
In general, Stevens said, having the best experience relies on factors like research and flexibility more than ever — even if prices drop after you pull the trigger on a purchase.
"You just have to say 'it is what it is,'" she said, citing European airfare last year she booked for about $1,000, only for other people in the group to later pay $700.