Monday, February 14, 2011

From $181 each way: Airline marketing at its best.

United wants people to know about its new nonstop service from its hub at Washington-Dulles (IAD) to Owen Roberts Airport on Grand Cayman (GCM).  According to the airline's Web site, fares are available "from $181 each way."

Airlines love to announce fares in terms of one-way cost.  No one is really going to fly one-way--actually, the one-way rate promised requires a round-trip purchase--but it makes the fare sound lower. 

Would you be as excited to hear about a round-trip fare from $362?  It's the same fare given the terms, but studies say no.

In fairness, even giving you the round-trip fare doesn't tell you everything.  The fine print observes that you'll also be subject to a bewildering series of charges, including:
  • A $3.70 per flight-segment tax;
  • Either a September 11th Security Fee of $2.50 per enplanement at a U.S. airport
    or Passenger Facility Charges of up to $18;
  • U.S. arrival and departure taxes and agricultural, immigrations and customs fees of up to $50;
  • Additional airport, transportation, embarkation, security and passenger service taxes/surcharges of up to $250 for foreign travel; and
  • Airport and/or departure taxes of up to $45, which may be collected by the foreign government.
The first one is pretty much guaranteed.  The second one will apply in one form or the other, but you have no way of knowing which.  The other three are entirely unknown when you first set out to book a ticket. 

Strangest of all, the departure tax might not even be part of your ticket.  You could have to pay it in cash--specifically, in U.S. dollars--at the airport before you can leave the country.

But let's say that you're okay with all of that.  What are the odds that you'll actually get that $181 fare both ways?  Usually, not good.  In this case, United specifies that the advertised fare is available only for travel on Saturdays, and the nonstop departure from GCM leaves too early for you to catch it on the same day.  That means staying for at least a week in order to come back at the same price for which you flew down.

Oh, and if you are inclined to stay a week?  Don't forget about those checked-baggage fees.  United gives you one free bag for international travel.  A second bag will cost you $30.

There are great deals on airfares, of course.  Just be aware that not every fare advertised as a special is necessarily as cheap as it sounds.

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