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New DOT rules should help travelers determine the true cost of their trips

After the U.S. Department of Transportation released new rules regarding airline ticket refunds and disclosure of “junk fees,” airlines and travel agencies are working on the best ways to comply in the future.

The new rules affect air travel purchases both before and after a flight, so carriers and ticket sellers must change the way tickets are presented and sold.

There is a 60-day period between when the rules are entered into the Federal Register (around May 1) and when they become effective (around July 1). In the meantime, ticket sellers and airlines will work on their websites to comply with the new rules.

(US airlines’ new rules on reimbursements and refunds are the talk of the travel industry. Here’s what you need to know.)

Consumer advocates say the new rules are a step in the right direction. But they don’t fare well compared to European Union rules on airline delays and cancellations.

For example, if you are flying to, from or within Europe and your flight is delayed by more than three hours, you may be entitled to compensation between 250 euros and 600 euros. There are exceptions to the policy, including air traffic management, weather and safety risks.

In addition to flight delays, European regulations are specific when it comes to cancellations, overbookings and lost or damaged luggage.

The DOT’s new rules are a response to the move toward ‘drip pricing’ by travel providers, where a new surcharge applies each time. Airlines are not the only category that has factored in these costs. Car rental companies and hotels have also hopped on board this bandwagon, which brings the industry billions of dollars in what’s called “ancillary revenue.”

The DOT’s new rules are aimed at infrequent travelers who book their own tickets online. Travel agents routinely issue refunds for flight cancellations. “I’ve never had an airline say no,” says Nate Vallier of Alaska Travel Desk. “Handling refunds and changes is part of our service,” he says. Travel agents usually charge $35-$50 to issue a ticket.

However, the new rules will not only focus on trip components that are covered, such as baggage delays and trip cancellations. Going forward, DOT attention will shed light on practices that are not yet addressed – but should be.

For example, DOT Secretary Pete Buttigieg called out airlines for charging families with small children extra to sit together. Several airlines have already adjusted their policies to accommodate families traveling together at no additional cost. But for the rest of the airlines, the DOT plans to implement new rules that will limit the policy. In the meantime, the DOT is publishing an Airline Customer Service Dashboard to help travelers.

One questionable method airlines use to market tickets is promoting one-way tickets. For example, Alaska Airlines is marketing one-way tickets from Anchorage to Paine Field for $119 one-way between May 24 and June 14. That’s a great price, especially now that Alaska has reintroduced nonstop flights.

Here’s the problem: There are only two days when a comparable flight north is available for $121: May 25 and 26. On most days the return flight costs much more: $231 one way.

Between Anchorage and Denver, both Alaska Airlines and United Airlines offer nonstop flights. Between May 25 and June 12, both airlines will offer a one-way ticket of $167 for a flight south.

Woe to the traveler who fails to take advantage of the one day when a comparably priced flight north is available (May 27). Most other available dates north cost between $341 and $399 one-way.

When airlines launch one-way flights to a particular destination, should travelers expect a round-trip ticket for roughly double that amount? For more than a few days? I think so.

Checked baggage fees remain a sticking point for travelers. Alaska Airlines took note of this when developing its Club 49 plan for Alaska residents. For travel to or from Alaska, members receive two free checked bags. Delta copied the plan and offered SkyMiles members two free checked bags.

Outside of their flights to Alaska, both Alaska Airlines and Delta charge $35 for the first checked bag. American Airlines and United charge $40. It’s no surprise that travelers will go out of their way to carry their bags on board rather than pay the fee. It appears the airlines have created their own carry-on crisis in their quest for more additional revenue.

More and more travelers can connect to the internet during the flight, in addition to an increasing range of entertainment on board. But prices often don’t reveal the true cost to travelers. Alaska Air has equipped more of its fleet with high-speed, satellite-based Wi-Fi at a cost of $8 per flight. If you fly one of the airline’s many direct flights to Seattle, San Francisco, Minneapolis, Chicago or New York, that’s great. But if you change in Seattle or Portland along the way, the cost comes to $16.

This year, Condor Air is flying new aircraft from Frankfurt to Anchorage, the Airbus 330-900neo. The plane is equipped with super-fast Wi-Fi even above the North Pole. But you have to dig pretty deep to find out how much they charge: 35 euros each way.

That’s about the same cost as American’s transatlantic flights and Singapore Air’s flights from the West Coast to Singapore. The free films are cheaper on these long-haul flights!

Delta offers free inflight Wi-Fi for SkyMiles members.

There are many other points in your journey where the costs or expensive options are surprising or shocking. Last month I had lunch at the New Orleans airport. We had a few sandwiches, two orders of fries and two beers. The cost before tip was $91.08. Other readers wrote to me about bottled water at the Las Vegas airport for more than $5 a bottle. These issues are not covered by the DOT. But some airports, like Portland’s, promise “street prices,” so there’s no airport incentive.

On the island of Kauai at the Grand Hyatt, prices are quite high ($850 per night). But on top of that there is a resort fee of $55 per day. A midweek car rental in Seattle next month will cost a minimum of $105, including all fees.

Traveling is expensive and it’s getting more expensive. Part of that price comes from your budget. But when travel companies make it more difficult to compare and plan your trip and assess the true costs, it adds an additional cost in the form of time and aggravation. That’s what the recent DOT rules aim to address, in addition to holding companies accountable for their promises.