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What the New Airfare Rules Mean for You

Kimberly Palmer

Here's some good news for air travelers: It just got easier to know how much you're paying to travel and compare prices in advance. That's because new rules from the Transportation Department that go into effect this week require airlines to include all of the required taxes and fees, as well as any baggage fees, when listing airfares.

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Before these rules went into effect, travelers searching for flights or glancing through ads would see what would appear to be amazing deals: Round-trip tickets to Las Vegas for just $99, or a flight to Ireland for $200. Alas, those deals were too good to be true. By the time customers finished paying for taxes and required fees, they would add $20 or more to their final ticket price.

Now that these rules have gone into effect, comparing prices and estimating total payments is easier. Searching for flights from Washington, D.C., to Boston on United's website, for example, brings up a $193.60 option that includes taxes and fees. On comparison sites such as Expedia.com, a search brings up an array of ticket options from different carriers, and all prices include taxes and fees.

The Transportation Department also now requires airlines to let travelers hold reservations for 24 hours without making a payment, as well as cancel reservations within 24 hours, for reservations made at least a week in advance. And that's not all: The Transportation Department says it's also exploring whether all optional fees should be disclosed during the booking process.

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For now, though, airlines can still add fees along the way, on everything from onboard Internet access to in-flight entertainment to food and drinks. Here are some tips on avoiding mid-air surprises:

1. Look up the policies of your airline before getting to the airport. Say you're flying to San Francisco from New York next week on Virgin America. If you visit virginamerica.com, you'll find that the airline sells sandwiches, movies, and Internet access onboard. (Travelers can watch live television for free.) Those meal and entertainment options might inspire you to pack your own sandwich and book to skip those fees. Or say you've booked a ticket on Southwest. You can go ahead and relax while packing your checked baggage, because the first two bags are free, unlike on most other airlines.

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2. If the policies are hard to find, use a site such as SmarterTravel.com, which offers a fee guide, so you don't have to do any extra work. SmarterTravel.com's guide provides the fee policies on all major airlines, so whether you're flying with Delta or Continental, you can get a breakdown of the fees to expect. Kayak.com also offers a useful chart.

3. Do your comparison shopping before you buy a ticket with a fee guide nearby. You might think that a $300 roundtrip ticket from San Francisco to Austin is a great deal. But if the airline will also charge you $50 for your two checked bags, $8 for a meal, and $15 for the seat you want, you might be better off getting a slightly more expensive ticket on a more all-inclusive airline. Or, just be sure to bring your own food and blanket along for the ride.

The bottom line: Consumers who do their own research in advance can avoid many travel fees. Since fee details can be hard to track down on airline sites, use comparison charts such as those on SmarterTravel.com or kayak.com.

Twitter: @alphaconsumer

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