The final screen offered travel insurance and a branded credit card but only hinted that checked-baggage fees “may” apply. Only by opening a pop-up window did I learn that I would have to fork over $25 each way for the first checked bag and $35 each way for the second. There’s no way to automatically factor that into the price of the ticket for an inclusive fare. If I want to buy something else, such as a meal, there’s no place on the booking screen for that, either.
Most airline passengers I speak with feel that a ticket price should include a few basic items, such as checking at least one bag and reserving a seat. But increasingly, airlines are separating those items from the base fare. The new fares look lower, but they’re not. Once you add up all the extras, you’re probably paying more than you did when the prices were bundled.
But are these fees “hidden” from passengers? Strictly speaking, no. They’re hard to find — maddeningly so. Impossible, if you’re booking through a travel agency. They’ll still be hard to find under the new rules, although carriers won’t be able to make their tickets look cheaper by stripping away fees and taxes. There’s no question that the airline industry is profiting from the resulting confusion. But no, they’re not hidden.
Still, that doesn’t make the current system right, and it doesn’t make the new way much better. Airlines have some of the most sophisticated reservations systems, particularly American Airlines, which has rolled out new technology called Direct Connect. If they’re committed to transparency, then why can’t they show us a price right now that includes everything?
The way this plays out could affect other parts of the travel industry. If regulation fails — if, for example, the DOT rules that the new Web site disclosures are sufficient — then I expect to hear more from hotel guests like Sturgeon, who feel ambushed by a surcharge.
Like it or not, the rest of the travel industry takes its cues from airlines. The new regulations are a step in the right direction, but you’d better have your calculator ready the next time you book a flight. You’ll still need it.
Elliott is National Geographic Traveler magazine’s reader advocate. E-mail him at .