IN THE NEWS

Paying Fees for Low Fares?!

Spirit has started offering exclusive sales to customers who pay fees.

Low-cost carrier Spirit has invented a membership club that's unique for airlines. Here's the deal: Pay $30 a year, and Spirit offers you a chance to book "amazingly low" fares. The airline e-mails these sale fares at least once every six weeks. But only club members can book them.

In other words, Spirit is replacing the common practice of e-mailing sale fares for free with a program of e-mailing sale fares to customers who pay for the privilege. Spirit is calling its program the "$9 Fare Club" because its sale fares will usually cost $9 or less, plus taxes.

Now we love $9 plane tickets as much as anyone. But Spirit's program is yet another example of a trend that we recently bemoaned: Airlines are charging fees for services that used to be complimentary for everyone. ("Maybe We Should Charge Extra If You Read This Page.") In this case, Spirit is charging you for the opportunity to hear about its sale fares, not for a guarantee that you'll actually be able to book its sale fares. (According to Spirit's rules, "Membership in the Club does not guarantee availability of special fares.")

The $9 Fare Club appears to be part of an industry-wide trend that disturbs us. As Budget Travel Editor Erik Torkells recently pointed out, "I'd never argue that companies shouldn't have tiers of service; paying more to get more is a fundamental principle of the service economy. But what has happened in recent years is that a company will introduce a special new level of service, then turn around and starting making the basic level--the one that doesn't cost extra--a little shabbier, then even a little shabbier than that. Treating someone better doesn't have to mean treating someone else worse, and yet that's what tends to happen."

In fairness, Spirit is a discount carrier that has recently brought low fares to many markets, especially those served by its main hubs in Detroit and Fort Lauderdale. Spirit has also just pledged to cut its standard fares (available to any customer) even further on many of its routes, which include 33 airports in the U.S., Latin America, and the Caribbean. That's great news for budget-minded travelers.

What still bothers us, though, is that Spirit's actions are part of a frenzy for fees in the airline industry. (See our story "If You Want That Pillow, You're Gonna Have to Pay.") We hope this industry trend peters out soon. In the meantime, do you want to know who is on your side? Our Extra Mile Awards are given to companies making travel easier, more affordable, or more enjoyable.

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Note:This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.
 

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