— Are you craving cranberries and planning to fly somewhere for the Thanksgiving holiday?
You’re not alone. The Air Transport Association of America (ATA) predicts that 24 million travelers, up 3.5 percent over last year, will take a domestic flight during the last two weeks of November.
Flights will be full, security will be tight and anyone traveling during the turkey-and-football-filled Thanksgiving weekend will be paying a hefty surcharge to do so.
Last fall, airlines experimented with adding extra fees, starting at $10 each way, for flights on the peak travel days around Thanksgiving. Many passengers balked, but enough people ponied up the cash that now most major airlines feel confident adding peak-day surcharges around Christmas, New Year's Day, spring break and the entire summer season.
“Travelers can consider these peak-travel-day surcharges to be a new holiday tradition,” said Jennifer Gaines, contributing editor for Travelocity.com.
Expect to pay more
Travelocity found the highest average domestic airfare to be $474 for a trip starting on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, when surcharges of $10 are levied, and ending on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, when surcharges of $30 are now common.
“But if you fly on Thanksgiving Day, the one day when there are no surcharges, and return on the Tuesday after the holiday, the average airfare drops to $287. The reason for that significant price swing has a lot to do with those surcharges,” said Gaines.
Savvy travelers can avoid the peak-day surcharges.
“Right now, only American, Continental, Delta, United, and US Airways charge the fee, so you can avoid it by flying a more fee-friendly airline such as Southwest or JetBlue,” said Anne Banas, executive editor of SmarterTravel.com.
However, the average passenger would have to dig deep into fare rules to spot the surcharges. “It’s not like the checked bags fees that you pay for separately when you show up at the airport,” said Rick Seaney, president of FareCompare.com. “The surcharges are now baked into the ticket price. Consumers will feel it when they get fare quotes for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and, if (you) happen to be a Super Bowl fan, if you’re planning to go to Dallas or Las Vegas in early February 2011.”
'The new normal'
“Surcharges are the ‘new normal’ for all areas of travel and leisure, not just air travel,” said Rita DiPalma, senior vice president of Brand Magnet, an online loyalty marketing company. “The fees may be seen as a trend in the new a la carte, or unbundled, world of travel. In reality, though, surcharges have always existed and are based on supply and demand.”
For example, DiPalma points to a major New York City car service, Dial 7, which adds a $5 surcharge for rides between the airport and Manhattan from Dec. 23-25 and a $6 surcharge on Dec. 26.
“New York’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel has a four-night minimum stay during the holidays. Is that a surcharge? Maybe — maybe not. But if you just want to stay at that hotel two or three nights, it certainly is,” said DiPalma.
Taking a cruise is often more expensive during the holiday season. But adding a surcharge for a special meal or activity, such as the popular circus show on the Norwegian Epic, might actually make the onboard experience more enjoyable, said Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor in chief of the Cruise Critic website. “Some of the amenities cruise lines are putting on ships these days would be too popular and overrun if they didn’t add a surcharge as a way to keep crowds down.”
Variable pricing takes root
This Thanksgiving, visitors to one major attraction in San Francisco will encounter a peak holiday surcharge for the first time. The California Academy of Sciences, which opened in 2008 with an aquarium, a planetarium, a natural history museum, 40,000 live animals and its own four-story rainforest, will be adding a $5 peak period surcharge to each ticket on Friday, Saturday and Sunday during the holiday weekend.
“The variable pricing structure, in which the cost of admission varies according to seasonal demand, [is] much like airline ticket pricing,” said the Academy’s Stephanie Stone, and is intended to encourage visitors with flexible schedules to visit during an off-peak day. Visitors who want to visit during the holiday weekend can of course go ahead and pay the $5 surcharge on top of the regular admission ticket price ($29.95 for adults, $24.94 aged 12-17) or “avoid peak-period surcharges by purchasing an Academy membership, which allows members to visit as often as they like, even during peak periods,” she added.
The California Academy of Sciences isn’t the first attraction to adopt variable pricing. “The Shedd Aquarium [in Chicago] has instituted peak-period pricing in the past,” said Stone, “as has the Vancouver [B.C.] Aquarium.”
Right now, though, the peak-period surcharge at the California Academy of Sciences is the only one the American Association of Museums is aware of. “Museums are very popular,” said spokesman Dewey Blanton. “They get an estimated 850 million annual visits per year. That’s more than all professional sporting events and theme parks combined. And we all know standing elbow-to-elbow can lessen the experience. So the California Academy of Science’s inventive policy might actually serve to enhance the visitor experience for all.”