When a cheap flight is just pie in the sky

What to watch out for on airline websites - the taxes and charges that can drive up your 'bargain' price
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The Independent Online

If you're trawling the web for a bargain Easter flight, don't be mesmerised by the headline cut-price deals. A slew of charges lurk.

Online deals can be misleading since, if they appear on the company's own website, tough advertising rules don't apply.

For example, last Monday's offer on the Ryanair website of a 79p one-way flight to Dublin actually came to £15.97, with £5 government tax, a £6.70 passenger service charge and a £3.48 insurance and wheelchair levy (applicable to everyone). It's cheap but still a lot more than the eye-catching 79p offer - and you need to add on either £1.75 if you pay by credit card or 40p for a debit card; only payment via the Visa Electron card is free.

The consumer group Which? has scrutinised low-cost flights and concludes that headline prices often tell you little about what you will actually pay.

"That's because companies routinely exclude taxes and charges from the first fare you see when you search a website - something that's not allowed in [paid-for] adverts," says a Which? spokesman. "Once you've added them to the initial prices, the cheapest airline can become the most expensive."

If an airline promotes a flight in a newspaper or on television, the total price has to be shown under the rules of the Advertising Standards Authority.

At the end of last year, the Air Transport Users Council (AUC) wrote to most airlines urging them to use all-inclusive pricing on their websites. It has also published a report suggesting that the way in which taxes, fees and charges (TFC) were presented on airline websites could lead to passengers paying more for their flights than intended.

"It is difficult to compare prices," says the AUC's chairman, Tina Tietjen, who reckons that fewer than half of passengers booking tickets online realise that airlines charge different TFCs on different routes.

And the charges don't necessarily stop there. Extra fees levied by budget airlines include £5 at Flybe to book a seat - if you want to sit together as a party, say - or £15 if you want extra leg room.

Flybe and Ryanair also charge extra for luggage taken in the aircraft's hold - £4 and £5 respectively. Both knock 50 per cent off their price if you make your baggage arrangements in advance online.

To get the best value from your cheap flight, there are basic steps you can take. For a start, use a flight-comparison service such as www.travelsupermarket. com. This trawls more than 140 travel websites to find a competitive deal.

Consider one-way fares as it can be cheaper to fly out with one airline and back with a different one.

Midweek flights can be much cheaper than weekend ones, and if you reckon you can pack all your gear into your hand luggage, then do so.

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