Rising gas prices affect spring break plans

Some travelers paying more; airlines add fuel surcharges


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BALTIMORE -- For her last spring break next week, Morgan State University senior Tenisha Duke planned a road trip to Florida with friends, the eight of them packed in two cars. That way, they could split the cost of gas.

But when violence broke out half a world away, sending gas prices here soaring, even that strategy wasn't frugal enough for Duke. She will be spending her break at her District of Columbia home instead of the beach.

"I'll be home," said Ms. Duke, who spends $80 a week on gas to commute to Morgan State's North Baltimore campus. "And that will save me gas money for the week."

As the spring getaway season begins this month with college students jetting off to sunny destinations and families soon joining them when schools have breaks in April, surging prices at the pumps are hampering plans and tacking on additional costs for travelers. In Maryland, gas prices averaged more than $3.50 a gallon last week -- up from $2.75 a year ago, according to AAA Mid-Atlantic.

And that's not the only mode of transportation getting pricier.

Airlines are increasing fares and adding surcharges to offset the runaway cost of fuel. Longer flights to Europe are hard hit with surcharges reaching $400 just as vacationers book summer getaways, according to travel site BestFares.com.

Several European-based cruise lines also have imposed or increased daily fuel fees on passengers. Major U.S. cruise ships such as Carnival Cruise Lines have imposed fuel surcharges in the past and have reserved the right to reinstate them if oil prices exceed a certain price.

Oil prices have spiked on fears of unrest that halted crude production in Libya spreading to other parts of the Middle East. While oil prices have fluctuated, on the belief that Japan's massive earthquake would dampen demand, the future is uncertain and potentially volatile.

If oil prices continue to climb this summer, so may the cost of a tank of gas, a plane ticket and cruise fare.

Consumer travel advocate Christopher Elliott said the average price of a plane ticket has gone up $50 since the beginning of the year. For spring and summer travel, prices are expected to increase another 20 percent over last year, he said.

"Airlines want to offload their fuel risks on us," he said.

Overseas travelers will feel the pinch in particular. Delta, United and American are among U.S. airlines that have imposed higher fuel surcharges on many overseas routes. International carriers also are passing along costs. Last week, Singapore Airlines and Qantas Airways raised their fuel surcharges.

The average fuel surcharge to Europe is now $400, up from about $150 a few years ago, according to BestFares.com, which tracks the fees.

Moreover, some airlines have cut back on flights to Europe -- even though the number of travelers in the skies has returned to pre-recession levels -- making the available flights more expensive, said travel expert Tom Parsons, who operates BestFares.com.

Some airlines, including American, have baked higher fuel costs into fares for domestic flights. Southwest Airlines, the largest carrier at Baltimore-Washington International, has announced some increases over the past few weeks, typically between $5 and $10 each way.

"As prices increase on big items like fuel, there are changes that all airlines have to make," said Whitney Eichinger, a Southwest spokeswoman.

Airlines are optimistic that higher fares won't deter travel plans.

"Overall traffic is holding its own, with domestic a little more close to flat and international growing fairly strongly," said Tim Smith, spokesman for American Airlines. "In general we expect the broad trends to continue, and we'll have a pretty busy summer."

Ms. Eichinger said sales have been strong so far this year, with record passenger traffic in January and February. "Going into spring break is a very busy time for us," she said. "We haven't seen any softening in demand."

But industry experts said consumers could balk at the higher fares. "It's definitely a concern whether it will impact passenger decisions to travel, because they have other things they could spend money on," said Paul Wiedefeld, executive director of the Maryland Aviation Administration, which operates BWI.

More cruise lines also may add fuel surcharges if oil prices continue to surge, said Colleen McDonough, an owner of Annapolis-based Aladdin Travel Agency, which books cruise trips.

"There's no way large vessels could travel without being compensated for that," Ms. McDonough said.

Last month, Cunard Line increased its daily fuel fee to $9 from $6 per passenger for a maximum of $300 per person for voyages after mid-April. It was the second increase in as many months for the luxury liner, which makes trips to the Caribbean, Mediterranean and Europe.

Carnival, which departs year-round from Baltimore, stopped charging a fuel supplement for all voyages several years ago, saying it was trying to make its vacations more affordable. But the cruise line reserves the right to reinstate the extra fee, at a charge of up to $9 per person per day. Other cruise companies have similar policies.

So far, though, Carnival has no plans to impose a surcharge.

"When you have these huge, fast spikes, it's easier to perhaps justify a fuel surcharge," Howard S. Frank, Carnival's chief operating officer, said during a recent call with analysts. "I don't see that in the cards, though, not based on where we see fuel for this year."

While travel agents say fuel fees typically amount to a small portion of the overall cost and are unlikely to dampen cruise-going, some worry that rising airline prices could be a deterrent when travelers fly to ports where cruises depart. Hillary Figinski, a marketing and sales representative for The Cruise Lady Inc. in Canton, pointed to pricey airfare to ports offering Alaska cruises.

"The price for air on that has been really high, and people have been deciding not to do that," Ms. Figinski said.

Ragina Averella, a spokeswoman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, which also provides travel reservations, said many spring break vacationers booked months in advance, locking in prices on trips. She said the group will be monitoring how rising gasoline prices affect vacation plans when it compiles its trip projections for Memorial Day, the start of the summer travel season.

For those hitting the road, sticker shock at the pump is already being felt.

For her spring break starting this week, Debora Johnson-Ross, an associate professor of political science at McDaniel College in Westminster, was able to snag a one-way plane ticket to Charlotte, N.C., for about $120 before prices started creeping up. But she's driving back with a friend to Baltimore from South Carolina -- that's a 500-mile trip.

Ms. Johnson-Ross now expects the road trip to cost more than her flight.

"It's going to be expensive," she said.



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