Summer is the time for vacations, and all the hassles that come with them: Crowded planes, higher airline fees and unpredictable, often-rising fares.
Airlines insist youre still getting a good deal when you fly. Its one of the best bargains out there for consumers, US Airways President Scott Kirby said last month at the companys media day in Tempe, Ariz. You often pay more for your hotel room than you do transcontinental flights.
But things dont feel that way for consumers, who have seen a profusion of new fees and charges for services that used to come free, such as checked baggage and in-flight snacks.
Here are five things you need to know this summer travel season, whether youre driving or flying:
Higher change fees
When you book tickets for a flight this summer, double- or even triple-check your dates. It might cost you more to change the date of a flight than the price of the ticket itself.
United Airlines, Delta Air Lines, American Airlines and US Airways all raised their fees for changing a domestic ticket to $200 this year. For international flights, it can be even higher, with fees ranging up to $300.
Airline executives say that changing reservations costs them money and that the fees are necessary to keep people from booking tickets theyre not sure theyll use only to cancel later. And they say that charging change fees helps keep general fares lower for most travelers.
If you dont do things like that, youve got to raise fares, Kirby said. Thats what the change fee is, just a different way of skinning that cat.
Southwest Airlines, which has nonstop flights to 10 cities from Raleigh-Durham International Airport, still doesnt charge change fees.
Fares this summer
Rick Seaney, CEO of airfare website FareCompare.com, wrote last week that although prices are high this summer by historical standards, theyre not likely to jump sharply in the coming months.
Demand is relatively flat, which can mean airfare prices wont go crazy for summer, Seaney wrote. And oil prices have been stable to slightly declining. Thats important because jet fuel is typically an airlines biggest expense and a major factor in pricing.
Federal statistics show the average domestic roundtrip flight from RDU was $349 in the fourth quarter last year, up 1 percent from the same quarter the previous last year. RDU was the 31st-most expensive airport out of the nations top 100 to fly from.
Seaney recommends buying tickets for early in the travel season, before July, or late, after the last week in August. Check out his complete tips for getting cheaper airfare at www.farecompare.com/news/advance-summer-vacation-flight-guide.
Travel experts advise not to expect flights this summer to have the luxury of an empty middle seat. Airlines are still setting records for load factor, the percentage of seats they have filled.
Thats because airlines have learned to keep capacity tight so they can avoid having to sell too many seats at discounted prices to fill them.
US Airways average load factor in 2012 was 84.1 percent, up from 82.4 percent in 2010. The comparison is more stark if you look back a decade: In 2002, only an average of 71 percent of US Airways seats were filled.
The higher load factors are better for airlines, which lose revenue on every unfilled seat on every plane. But its bad news for passengers, who face longer boarding times and less comfortable flights.
Pack light really light
Baggage fees are here to stay, and theyre a major reason airlines have been able to eke out a profit even as jet fuel prices stay over $3 a gallon.
Last year, US Airways collected $516 million worth of baggage fees, federal statistics show. The airline charges $25 for a first domestic checked bag and $35 for a second. For the year, US Airways profit totaled $637 million.
So avoid those fees if you can by using carry-on bags (Spirit Airlines charges up to $50 for a carry-on bag, but theyre still alone on that fee).
And you might get another perk: As more customers switch from checked to carry-on bags, airlines are trying to speed up boarding and save space in the overhead bins.
That means incentives for travelers who pack ultra-light. American Airlines announced Thursday that passengers with only a personal item such as a purse or laptop bag that fits under the seat in front of them will be able to board before most passengers. US Airways and American expect to complete their merger in the third quarter.
Gasoline prices lower
If youre driving instead of flying this summer, you might get some relief at the fuel pump. A gallon of regular gas in the Triangle averaged $3.41 last week, down from $3.62 the same time last year, according to AAAs Fuel Gauge Report.
The highest recorded average price for the Triangle region on record was $4.06 a gallon in September 2008.
AAA is predicting that gas prices will continue to stay low this summer. Stable production levels and demand could drive average national prices to between $3.20 and $3.40 a gallon, the company says. Thats assuming there are no refinery issues or disruptive international news or weather events during summer travel season, however.
Typically, gas prices will rise as we get deeper into summer, due to increased demand and hurricane season, said AAA spokeswoman Angela Daley. We get 90 percent of our oil from the Gulf, so even the threat of a hurricane can drive up gas prices, as we saw last year with Hurricane Isaac.
Portillo: 704-358-5041 On Twitter @ESPortillo