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5 Ways to Beat the Hidden Costs of Airline Travel

sunset from view of an airplane window

The classic Disney vacation is a rite of passage for American families, something that many parents spend years saving up for and planning.

But it wasn’t always this way.

In 1980, the price of a single-day admission ticket to Walt Disney World in Florida went up from $7 to $8 for adults and from $6 to $7 for kids. A night in Disney’s Polynesian Resort went for about $70 per night, and many families could travel by car for less than $100, given that gas was going for just about $1 per gallon in those days.

Oh, how times have changed.

As of 2017, one day at a Disney park will set you back about $100 per person, most of the Disney hotels charge more than $250 per night, and the average family can expect to spend $4,000 or more on the typical vacation trip to the “Happiest Place on Earth.”

Increased costs in the airline industry are not as noticeable as the skyrocketing price of a Disney vacation, but that doesn’t mean air travel today is a deal. In fact, the average price of a domestic airline flight in 1980 was nearly $600, according to The Wall Street Journal, and about $509 today.

But there’s more to the story, because today, the base fare of a flight is just the beginning — the overall cost of airline travel to the consumer has been steadily increasing faster than inflation for decades. Domestic airfare has risen 10.7 percent over the past five years, according to the Associated Press and, unlike in years past, today’s base fares cover only the bare minimum (and on some discount carriers, that doesn’t even include a seat).

It’s the hidden costs that are getting us now. These include:

  • Baggage fees, which brought airlines $6 billion in revenue in 2013
  • Extra taxes, which add nearly $50 to the base fare of almost every flight in the U.S.
  • Add-ons and upcharges, many of which used to be included in the fare, such as free food, movies, more leg room, or even reserved seat assignments

With careful planning and a little research, you still can take a family trip without going broke. Here are some tips and tricks to save money in the air without ruining your plans.

Consider Time as Well as Cost

Lower-cost flights tend to be at off-peak times or overnight. If a flight has three legs, departs at dawn, and takes 11 hours to reach a destination that's usually only a three-hour flight away, is it really worth the cost difference?

Don’t overlook the value of time, and question any travel hacks that seem too good to be true. For example, it may seem tempting to fly into an airport that is a few hours away from your destination and rent a car to drive the rest of the way, if the fare savings is significant. But think about what that means — the cost of the rental car, gas for the drive, insurance to cover it all, and an extra half-day of travel time round trip. Is it really a deal?

Don’t Drive and Park

It costs nearly $20 per day to leave a car parked at most U.S. airports, and even more if you want your ride to be protected from the elements in a garage or under cover. At those prices, it doesn’t take long for the economics of driving to the airport vs. taking a shuttle or taxi to tilt away from driving yourself. Always do the math.

Play the Overbooking Game

No one wants to get bumped from their flight. It interrupts plans, throws off schedules and can lead to hours left sitting in an airport. But that doesn’t change the fact that airlines routinely overbook flights today. Bumps happen, and savvy flyers know how to take advantage of this loophole in the system.

Airlines are legally required to reimburse passengers up to several times the cost of the original fare whenever they are removed from a flight, in addition to rebooking them or putting them up at a local hotel if needed. Know the system and know what you’re entitled to before accepting any bump deal from the airline.

Ship Your Luggage

Not long ago, the idea of shipping your luggage to your final destination would have made little sense. But again, costs may start to add up when bringing multiple bags, large or oversized items, or particularly heavy luggage.

When the price of packing and shipping bags dips below the fees that your airline would charge to bring them aboard, sending large items ahead might be a money saver. Bonus: Shipping means no lugging heavy luggage through the airport or worrying about finding space in the overhead bins for your carry-on.

Choose Your Destinations Wisely

The airline industry has for years been cutting back on service to smaller, out-of-the-way destinations, in favor of airports in major cities. As a result, flying into smaller airports has become extremely expensive, even when flights are available. Not everyone can pick and choose where they travel, but when possible, large, well-traveled airports can be cheaper because more low-cost flights will be available.

Let’s face it, airline travel is expensive, but saving money on flights doesn’t have to be complicated. Sometimes, a little common sense and budget-watching can go a long way toward keeping the hidden costs of air travel under control.

[Any reference to a specific company, commercial product, process or service does not constitute or imply an endorsement or recommendation by the National Endowment for Financial Education.]