What the Airlines Have Learned From Popular Retailers

People love Kohl's. The discount department store is always offering $10 off coupons or "Kohl's cash" or 80 percent off sales, whatever it takes to get you in the door. Now it seems the airlines are paying attention.

I'm thinking of a recent JetBlue sale ("Today Only! 20% Off!) and a special offer from Southwest that priced all flights at a hundred bucks or less (of course, prices were good for one day only, but still).

The point is, airlines are acting less like transportation companies and more like retailers, and that's a good thing - for them.

For more travel news and insights view Rick's blog at farecompare.com

Back to Kohl's for a moment. As some local TV news reporters have discovered, the discount department store's prices are not static; they go up and down depending on when you buy.

The same is true for airfare. Say you buy an airline ticket on a weekend; you can pay a lot more than if you bought it on Tuesday, the cheapest day to shop. Another example of yo-yo pricing is flying during a peak travel period - say a Friday in high summer or the Wednesday before Thanksgiving - versus flying during a dead zone, like much of January.

So airlines are pricing both their core product and a new a la carte menu of optional fees (many of which used to be free or a perk of elite travelers only), much the same way a retailer would. This is something they couldn't do during the days before de-regulation and something they didn't dare do during the nightmare period beginning with 9/11 and continuing through the recession of just a few years ago. Now, things are a bit brighter and the airlines are taking advantage.

Do bag fees still stick in your craw? Too bad because they're here to stay. Look, I don't like fees either, but they are optional. Here's some perspective: American Airlines will carry your 50-pound checked bag for $25 one-way and it'll arrive with you (most of the time). Federal Express, on the other hand, will ship a 50-pound box for about $62, but you'll have to wait a few days. If you absolutely, positively have to have it overnight, FedEx will charge in the neighborhood of $300 and more.

I can hear it now: "At least I wouldn't have to hang around the baggage carousel with FedEx." But you don't have to do that with some of the airlines anymore, either, and United's new home delivery service charges only $29.95, which, on top of the regular checked-bag fee, still comes out cheaper than the FedEx ground rate. Cheaper and quicker.

But perhaps no airline fee makes people crazier than the "change fee" because it's expensive and because you're paying to change your mind. Again, get used to it. Ever hear of a restocking fee? The Consumerist website is filled with tales of woe from those who haven't but the bottom line is, the privilege of changing your mind can cost you whether you shop American Airlines or Amazon.

More and more high-end hotels are doing this, too: Cancel at the last minute (and even cancel weeks ahead of time at some high-end hotels) and you may be penalized to the tune of one night's stay. I recently perused the cancellation policy for a well-known San Francisco luxury palace where the penalty was more than $600 - that was the cost of a night in one of their cheaper rooms.

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