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Fares may be down, but these Canadian airline fees bring the price back up

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With spring break just weeks away, Canadians looking to jet-set their way to a new destination either now or when prices come down in the spring are being reminded by experts to review their fares carefully.

While Statistics Canada suggests prices for airfare dropped in 2023 by roughly 14 per cent, airline analysts say the lower fares can be a catch-grab.

“They offer you a low fare as a way of drawing you into travel,” said Karl Moore, a business strategy professor at McGill University who also studies the industry.

Lured in by low fares, would-be travellers sometimes find that once on the booking page, the other costs add up.

Frequent flyers will be well aware of fees for checked bags, seat selection or refundable tickets, but for those less aware, these add-ons can increase the overall price significantly.

WestJet baggage fees

This month, West Jet has increased its baggage fees system-wide for the first time since 2018.

This follows an increase in November that applied to excess checked bags paid for at the airport with an airport agent.

The new prices for checked bags are up at least $5 across the board. For example, pre-purchased on a base fare, a first checked bag will cost between $35 and $42. That’s up from $30 to $36.

The airlines says these changes only apply to tickets purchased on or after Feb.15.

Air Canada watching 'trends'

In a statement from Air Canada, the airline said, “We are aware of these trends in the industry and monitor them for competitive purposes, but there has been no change to our policy with respect to baggage fees.”

The airline wouldn’t say whether an increase loomed. A first checked bag with Air Canada costs roughly $36.

Flair's extra costs

Flair charges for carry-on and a checked bag could cost up to $79. The airline’s website lists additional costs that include a charge when booking over the phone and a credit card fee.

“We keep our fares as low as possible while giving you the flexibility to add additional services," Flair’s website says.

'Do a bit of math'

An industry expert says the extra and increased fees can add up quickly, without the passenger necessarily noticing.

“You definitely gotta do a little bit of math, that's probably the most frustrating part for any traveller these days,” said Barry Choi, a travel expert based in Toronto.

“You are looking at all these different fees. You might not be accounting for one thing or another. You think you’re getting a deal and once you run those numbers you're like... you know what this price isn’t as good as I had really thought about.”

He said that once a traveller has added up all the additional costs, on top of the basic fare, it can sometimes exceed $100.

Often, passengers would be better off selecting the higher priced fare from the start, which typically includes baggage and seat selection.

“You’re comparing different airlines. Once you add up all the extra fees, especially with lower-cost airlines, sometimes it’s just as expensive as the mainline airline carriers. So at that point, you’re like, I might as well go with the bigger carrier because I have more flight options and a backup plan if anything happens.”

'Ancillary fees'

Those who study the industry remind the public that airlines are businesses, and fees are a simple way for corporations to make money to buy new equipment and to pay employees and their shareholders.

“The ancillary fees are a nice way of growing that revenue, and you don’t have to spend a lot to make it, so it’s an area of considerable interest. It has been for years in the airline industry, and it’s getting more of interest if you are competing, particularly on price,” said Moore.

Major airlines say this format allows them to offer a range of fares, giving the passengers flexibility.

Consumer advocates say it’s not ideal, and want the total cost with things like baggage and seat selection included in the price travellers see when they first look at booking their trips.

“They make the consumer go through a long convoluted process to get to what the real price is. This makes it difficult to compare. This means that when someone does an initial inquiry on price, they may not have a realistic comparative price to shop around,” said Ken Whitehurst, executive director of Consumers Council of Canada.

Small ways to save

Experts suggest with fees increasing, it’s best to be a savvy traveller and understand what you don’t really have to pay for.

Examples include the use of carry-on bags only, and skipping the option of paying for seat selection -- if it works for you, don’t pay to select the seat, just sit where the airline assigns you.

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