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Your airline ticket doesn’t always promise what it once did

It’s not enough to look for the cheapest airfare anymore.

Not when airlines are increasingly dividing and subdividing their cabins and charging separately for what used to be part of the fare. More legroom? That will be an extra charge. Overhead bin space? Only if you buy a more expensive ticket.

In the new world of airfares, similar-sounding fare classes such as “economy” and “basic economy” can mask big differences in the level of service offered. Complicating matters further, booking websites often do a poor job of explaining what travellers are actually getting for the listed price.

“You need a supercomputer sometimes to figure out what you are getting and what you are not getting,” said Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst at Atmosphere Research Group. “Just to add confusion to the mix, obviously not every airline’s lowest fare includes or excludes the same things.”

With a basic economy ticket on American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines, travellers can’t select a seat in advance. But on Delta, basic economy passengers are still permitted to use the overhead bins if there is available space. On American and United, those overhead compartments are off limits to those who purchase the lowest fares — unless the passenger is an elite member of the airlines’ reward programs.

“You have to do more research than ever,” said Paul Hudson, the president of FlyersRights.org, a consumer advocacy group. “Even if you think you know your way around this, things are changing to the point that you have to constantly review what’s best for you.”

Not that long ago, airline tickets were much more self-explanatory. There were just two or three “classes” of seats, and even the coach fare came with decent legroom and allowed at least one checked bag. For no extra charge, a lucky traveller might wind up with some extra legroom in an exit or bulkhead row.

That started to change in 2008, when American Airlines introduced a fee for a passenger’s first checked bag. Since then, the whole industry has introduced more and higher fees each year, charging for priority boarding, Wi-Fi, on-board entertainment and even selecting a seat in advance. The Trump administration recently rejected a proposed rule that would have compelled airlines to alert passengers to baggage fees earlier and more prominently in the booking process.


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