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What to know before you go: 5 tips for summer travel

Summer is the time for vacations, and all the hassles that come with them: Crowded planes, higher airline fees and unpredictable, often-rising fares.

Airlines insist you’re still getting a good deal when you fly. “It’s one of the best bargains out there for consumers,” US Airways president Scott Kirby said last month at the company’s media day in Tempe, Ariz. “You often pay more for your hotel room than you do transcontinental flights.”

But things don’t feel that way for consumers, who have seen a profusion of new fees and charges for services that used to come free, such as checked baggage and in-flight snacks.

Here are five things you need to know this summer travel season, whether you’re driving or flying:

Higher change fees

When you book tickets for a flight this summer, double- or even triple-check your dates. It might cost you more to change the date of a flight than the price of the ticket itself.

United Airlines, Delta Air Lines, American Airlines and US Airways all raised their fees for changing a domestic ticket to $200 this year. For international flights, it can be even higher, with fees ranging up to $300.

Airline executives say changing reservations costs them money and the fees are necessary to keep people from booking tickets they’re not sure they’ll use only to have them cancel later. And they say that charging change fees helps keep general fares lower for most travelers.

“If you don’t do things like that, you’ve got to raise fares,” Kirby said. “That’s what the change fee is, just a different way of skinning that cat.”

Southwest Airlines still doesn’t charge change fees, but the company still has only limited service from Charlotte, with six departures daily.

Fares this summer

Rick Seaney, CEO of airfare website FareCompare.com, wrote last week that although prices are high this summer by historical standards, they’re not likely to jump sharply in the coming months.

Demand is “relatively flat, which can mean airfare prices won’t go crazy for summer,” Seaney wrote. And oil prices have been stable to slightly declining. That’s important because jet fuel is typically an airline’s biggest expense and a major factor in pricing.

Federal statistics show the average domestic roundtrip flight from Charlotte was $397 in the fourth quarter last year, down 1.5 percent from the same quarter the previous year. Charlotte was the 31st-most expensive city out of the nation’s top 100 to fly from.

Seaney recommends buying tickets for early in the travel season, before July, or late, after the last week in August. Check out his complete tips for getting cheaper airfare at http://www.farecompare.com/news/advance-summer-vacation-flight-guide.

Crowded planes

Don’t expect flights this summer to have the luxury of an empty middle seat. Airlines are still setting records for “load factor,” the percentage of seats they have filled.

That’s because airlines have learned to keep capacity tight so they can avoid having to sell too many seats at discounted prices to fill them.

US Airways’ average load factor in 2012 was 84.1 percent, up from 82.4 percent in 2010. The comparison is more stark if you look back a decade: In 2002, only an average of 71 percent of US Airways’ seats were filled.

The higher load factors are better for airlines, which lose revenue on every unfilled seat on every plane. But it’s bad news for passengers, who face longer boarding times and less comfortable flights.

Pack light – really light

Baggage fees are here to stay, and they’re a major reason airlines have been able to eke out a profit even as jet fuel prices stay over $3 a gallon.

Last year, US Airways collected $516 million worth of baggage fees, federal statistics show. The airline charges $25 for a first domestic checked bag and $35 for a second. For the year, US Airways’ profit totaled $637 million.

So avoid those fees if you can by using carry-on bags (Spirit Airlines charges up to $50 for a carry-on bag, but they’re still alone on that fee). And you might get another perk: As more customers switch from checked to carry-on bags, airlines are trying to speed up boarding and save space in the overhead bins.

That means incentives for ultra-light packers. American Airlines announced Thursday that passengers with only a “personal item” such as a purse or laptop bag that fits under the seat in front of them will be able to board before most passengers. US Airways and American expect to complete their merger in the third quarter, so this perk for light packers could soon become standard on Charlotte’s biggest carrier.

Gasoline prices lower

If you’re driving instead of flying this summer, you might get some relief at the fuel pump. A gallon of regular gas in the Charlotte-Gastonia-Rock Hill area averaged $3.45 last week, down from $3.62 the same time last year, according to AAA’s Fuel Gauge Report.

The highest recorded average price for the Charlotte region on record was $4.18 a gallon in September 2008.

AAA is predicting that gas prices will continue to stay low this summer. Stable production levels and demand could drive average national prices to between $3.20 and $3.40 a gallon, the company says. That’s assuming there are no refinery issues or disruptive international news or weather events, however.

“Typically, gas prices will rise as we get deeper into summer, due to increased demand and hurricane season,” said AAA spokeswoman Angela Daley. “We get 90 percent of our oil from the Gulf, so even the threat of a hurricane can drive up gas prices, as we saw last year with Hurricane Isaac.”

Portillo: 704-358-5041 On Twitter @ESPortillo
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