Air travelers relish trips taken before fees kick in

Saturday was the first full day of summer, but some travelers at Charlotte's airport treated it like Thanksgiving.

Not because the airport was packed with passengers, although check-in and security lines swelled at times.

Rather, airline passengers were thankful.

Thankful they bought tickets before prices went up.

Thankful some new bag-check fees hadn't kicked in.

Thankful they could take a trip without worrying about costs going through the roof. Yet.

Since the summer travel season began Memorial Day weekend, several airlines have announced plans to cut flights this year – an effort aimed at trimming costs and boosting fares.

With record-high oil prices adding significantly to fuel costs, many carriers – including US Airways, Charlotte's dominant airline – also are adding fees. Once included in the ticket cost, checking a bag, having a soft drink or reserving a window or aisle seat could cost passengers more money, depending on the airline.

That adds up to a daunting proposition for leisure travelers, especially with family vacations.

The Stroup family of Plymouth, Minn., spent 10 days in Hilton Head Island, S.C., before taking a US Airways flight home Saturday. Parents Steve and Joy and children Tara, 6, and Liam, 3, usually travel a few times a year, in part because relatives live all over the country, Steve Stroup said.

But with the cost of flying rising, he said, “we'll probably travel once a year.”

Crystal Duggar of Greeneville, Tenn., said her group – fiance David Dykes and his mother, June Dykes – managed to avoid bag-check fees for their Saturday trip to Reno, Nev. US Airways now charges $25 to check a second bag, but Duggar's party checked only one bag each, and the airline's new $15 fee for a first checked bag doesn't start until July 9.

Still, Duggar saw the writing on the wall when it comes to future travel costs.

“We were all right this time,” she said. “It's not going to be as cheap from now on.”

American Airlines was the first major airline to charge for a first checked bag, announcing the $15 fee a month ago. The fee applies to tickets bought on or after last Sunday.

Santiago Mariani, a recent graduate of Wofford College in Spartanburg, and Christine Hendershott, a student at Converse College in the same city, flew on American Airlines Saturday at Charlotte/Douglas International Airport. They checked one bag each for their trip to the Dominican Republic but didn't pay a fee because their tickets were bought before last Sunday, and they were traveling internationally.

Even so, the bag-check fees didn't fly with Mariani. “I was surprised” when American announced the change, he said. “I wasn't too happy about it.”

For some travelers, a trip this month brought lower costs. Sort of.

Sang Kim and Jeannie Huh-Kim of Fullerton, Calif., on Saturday wrapped up a swing through Chapel Hill, Durham and Atlantic Beach, N.C., plus Hilton Head Island, with their sons Andrew, 10, and Ryan, 8. That itinerary meant a lot of gas in their rental car, but the per-gallon price in the Carolinas is much lower than what they pay in Southern California, where it has topped $4.50.

Yet the Kims know that any gas savings on their next trip likely will be offset by new fees from airlines. That is, unless they change how they travel.

“We talked about getting smaller bags,” Jeannie Huh-Kim said, “so we can carry everything on.”