- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 29, 2016

DALLAS (AP) - As families and individuals start to book summer travel, a debate is rising about whether airlines make it too hard to choose the most affordable options.

Airlines say the Internet has made pricing transparent and air travel is a bargain.

Consumer advocates and lawmakers counter that comparing fees for things like baggage and extra legroom - a growing part of the cost of a trip - can be difficult, especially when travelers don’t buy their ticket directly from the airline.

No changes are coming in the short-term, leaving travelers to plot their own strategies for finding the best prices. As always, it helps to plan ahead and consider whether you need extra services that might add to your cost.

Some old strategies are losing value due to changes in the way airlines operate.

The notion that Wednesday (or Tuesday) is the best day to buy your ticket isn’t always true anymore. As more airlines base loyalty programs on how much you spend, not how many miles you fly, it has become harder for many leisure travelers to earn free flights.

Here are five tips from travel experts:

- Know what comes with your seat by reading the fine print on the airline website. A cheap ticket that doesn’t include checked baggage might not be such a bargain.

Delta Air Lines (and soon American and United) has a lower “basic economy” fare. “It looks cheap, but it’s got a whole bunch of restrictions on it,” says Patrick Surry, the chief data scientist at Hopper, a travel-research firm in Cambridge, Mass. “It’s impossible to change it, you don’t get a seat assignment, and you can’t pay to upgrade. It’s buyer beware - you need to do your homework.”

- Be flexible with dates and destinations. Flying to tourist destinations will almost certainly be cheaper and less crowded in September or even August than in July. That is of little help, however, to families with school-age children.

- Check the budget airlines. For example, if you’re flying to Europe this year, Iceland’s WOW air and Norwegian Air Shuttle have added routes across the Atlantic.

“They may not be the most convenient or comfortable, but they may offer some attractive savings,” says Henry Harteveldt, a travel analyst in San Francisco. He cautions that travelers wanting lots of optional services may find it’s cheaper to stick with the older, more familiar airlines.

- If you haven’t done so yet, follow the Twitter accounts of the airlines on your intended route and sign up for alerts from fare-tracking services - there are several of those. That way you’ll learn about a flash sale before it ends.

- Families should confirm free seat assignments right away when booking on American, Delta or United, says Summer Hull, author of the Mommy Points blog. She factors in the extra fee for advance seat assignments when flying on the discount airlines that won’t let you pick a seat for free.

Costs can rise quickly for a family. If mom, dad and two kids each have a suitcase, that’s often $100 each way within the U.S. Want to sit together on a low-fare airline? Seat assignments run $2 to $100 each round-trip on Spirit and $12 and up on rival Frontier, although Frontier offers a discounted package of extras. If the family must reschedule, changing a nonrefundable U.S. ticket costs $200 on American, Delta or United but is free on Southwest.

Fees for certain seats and other items can vary widely - or be waived - depending on whether you belong to an airline’s loyalty program and whether you’re an elite member. Even using the airline’s branded credit card can make a difference. Your fees might be waived on one airline but not another.

“It is totally consumer-unfriendly,” says Charles Leocha, who is on a panel that advises the U.S. Department of Transportation about consumer issues. “That makes it next to impossible for consumers to comparison-shop. There is no single site for anyone to go to.”

Consumer advocates are waiting for a Transportation Department rule that they believe will require airlines to provide information about fees to third parties like online travel agencies, which they say would make comparison-shopping easier. But any such rule is not expected to take effect until late 2016 or beyond.

Congress is unlikely to settle the debate. This month, a Senate committee blocked a proposal to require Transportation Department approval of fees, a vote that pleased the airline industry.

The trade group Airlines for America combines its own data on bag fees and change fees with government figures on fares to calculate that even with the fees the average U.S. ticket was 10 percent cheaper in 2014 than in 2000 after inflation.

Melanie Hinton, a spokeswoman for the trade group, says customers can already choose among airlines and select different combinations of prices and amenities to suit their needs.

The current system is working, Hinton says, because “we are seeing the highest number of people flying since the Great Recession. Airfare remains a bargain.”

___

David Koenig can be reached at https://twitter.com/airlinewriter

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