Industry mavens these days are talking a lot about airlines' "bundling" of fares and fees. So far, there's more talk than action, but you can expect the practice to grow. For now, here's what you need to know.
By far the best current example of bundling is on American Airlines. On any domestic fare search, American's website automatically displays three economy-class fare options:
— Choice Essential, at $68 extra round-trip, adds one no-charge checked bag, no fee to exchange the ticket and apply its value toward another ticket, and priority boarding.
— Choice Plus, at $80 extra, adds a 50 percent mileage bonus, no-fee, same-day flight change, and same-day standby for a domestic flight.
Clearly, these bundles are priced to be attractive. One checked bag adds $40 to a round-trip domestic trip and the change fee is $200 for a domestic ticket. Last week, the most tight-fisted traveler I know chose American over US Airways to take advantage of the Choice Essential option. And, for many, the mileage bonus and same-day change (the regular fee is $75) are worth yet another extra $20. Unlike some other lines' bundles, American says it continues to offer all three options when low-fare seats sell out as increments to whatever is the lowest available fare at the time.
Several other airlines follow a similar pattern:
Frontier's Classic option, providing one checked bag and one drink, adds $29 to a Denver-Cleveland flight; Classic Plus, adding $65 on my test flight, includes an extra-legroom seat, is fully refundable, provides same-day standby and gives a 50 percent mileage bonus. To me, that would be a no-brainer on most Frontier flights.
Air Canada offers bottom-level Tango fares that earn only 25 percent of actual mileage; the Flex nonrefundable adds full mileage and no-charge seat assignments, but the price — an additional $100 on a transcontinental round-trip — is pretty high for what seem to be minor benefits. Unlike American, however, Tango seats often sell out well in advance, so only the higher fares are available.
WestJet's base economy fare includes one checked bag and fees of $75 to $82 to refund or exchange the ticket. Flex lowers the fees by $25, but that's a pretty small benefit for a fare that's almost $200 more on a long-haul trip. The Plus option adds two checked bags, no itinerary change fee and an extra-legroom seat, for about $100 more than Flex — maybe a bit better value. But, as with Air Canada, base fares can sell out and often all that's left are the higher classes.
EVA, LAN, Lufthansa, and Qantas offer a few options, based mainly on mileage earnings and differing exchange fees.
Delta and United are taking totally different approaches. Delta's deal is a "smart travel pack" consisting of one no-charge checked bag for everyone in the travel party, priority boarding, access to "preferred" seats (based on location, not legroom), discounts on extra-legroom Economy Comfort of 50 percent domestic and 25 percent international, and 25 percent extra frequent flyer miles. The price is $199 from now through January 1, with no indication yet about what a full year 2014 will cost.
United's Economy Plus "subscription" provides extra-legroom Economy Plus on all trips for a full year. But the prices are stiff: $499 per year for one person, domestic flights only; add $100 for Alaska, Hawaii and Central America; add $200 worldwide; add $200 for a companion or $400 for a travel party up to eight. United's "baggage subscription" starts at $395 per year for one person, checking one bag; add $100 for Alaska, Hawaii and Central America, or an incredible $450 more for worldwide coverage; add $50 for two bags. Overall, most of you would be better off with United's MileagePlus Club Visa card, at $395 per year, providing access to United Club, two checked bags worldwide and other features.
American clearly has the best approach for anyone other than a very frequent flyer. Keep your eyes on other big lines to see how they react.
(Send e-mail to Ed Perkins at firstname.lastname@example.org. Perkins' new book for small business and independent professionals, "Business Travel When It's Your Money," is now available through http://www.mybusinesstravel.com or http://www.amazon.com)