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By Keith L. Alexander
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 16, 2006

S o if you're hoping to redeem your frequent-flier miles for a free airline ticket to Disney World or Los Angeles this summer, it may be difficult. Some airlines are already telling customers they don't have any available "award" seats to those destinations until 2007.

If you want to snuggle with a pillow or blanket on your flight, you can. But you may have to pay a little extra for that comfort.

And if you rent a car while on vacation, make sure you plan to drive more than 75 miles, otherwise you may be charged a $9.50 fee.

This is the new world of travel -- restrictions, fees and, for many travelers, frustrations.

In recent years, the travel industry seems to have transformed itself into a world of extra fees. The days of paying one price for a flight, hotel room and a rental car seem to be quickly passing. Instead, in an effort to boost their revenue and cover costs, airlines, hotels and car-rental companies have adopted the banking industry's a la carte model of charging for every part of every transaction.

As you prepare for summer travel, know that you are not alone. About 147 million passengers will be flying domestically and internationally this year, the Federal Aviation Administration estimates. That compares with about 139 million last year. Here then are a few recent industry updates and trends -- not only about fees, but also about logistics -- that can help reduce travel-related stress before you even leave the house.

Planning

If you book a flight yourself, keep in mind that many major airlines charge anywhere from $10 to $15 if you call their toll-free reservation number or if you go to the airport and purchase your ticket from an agent. The airlines -- particularly legacy carriers such as American, United, Delta and US Airways -- encourage travelers to book flights on their Web sites to help reduce labor and ticket-processing costs.

Some travelers object to the airline's booking fee policy. Retired furniture salesman and frequent flier Henry Pabian calls it "unethical." "There are some people who don't have access to a computer. It's unfair to penalize them. That's not equal access," says Pabian of Canton, Ohio. "Sure, you want lower transportation prices, but how much do you trade off?"

It's not only the airlines charging you just to make a reservation. Because the carriers no longer pay commissions to travel agents, most travel agencies charge between $20 and $50 to process a round-trip ticket. "The consumer now takes on the added expense for the services rendered," says Richard Copeland, immediate past president of the American Society of Travel Agents.

Frequent-Flier Miles

Domestic carriers are flying fewer flights within the United States and are using smaller planes to temper high fuel prices. This summer, the airlines are expected to cut their domestic capacity on average by about 2.6 percent, according to the Air Transport Association, the Washington group that represents the nation's largest airlines. That reduction means that a 120-seat aircraft that was already nearly sold out last summer would fill up three more seats this summer. That translates into fewer seats even for some of the airline's best customers.

Airlines don't reveal how many seats they make available as part of frequent-flier redemptions. That's one of the biggest gripes among frequent fliers because it means there is no way to compare the carriers and their redemption process.

With the aircraft seat reduction, frequent-flier experts are already hearing from travelers who are finding it difficult to nab seats to popular destinations.


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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