How much will a spring break really cost you?

Britain is about to experience its biggest Easter exodus. For many passengers, the surcharges can total more than the actual fare. So what are these levies? Simon Calder examines the high price of travel

As holidaymakers prepare to leave the country in record numbers, budget airlines and traditional carriers have begun yet another bout of bickering - this time over how airlines massage fares to make them look more enticing than they are. Most scheduled flights from the UK are now booked online, where the headline fare is invariably subject to a range of extra charges.

As holidaymakers prepare to leave the country in record numbers, budget airlines and traditional carriers have begun yet another bout of bickering - this time over how airlines massage fares to make them look more enticing than they are. Most scheduled flights from the UK are now booked online, where the headline fare is invariably subject to a range of extra charges.

An Air Transport Users' Council (AUC) report criticised the airlines for passing off normal operating expenses as taxes: "The passenger is faced with, at a late stage in the booking process, a total that bears little resemblance to the figures quoted previously."

This weekend, more travellers are expected to leave the country than at any previous Easter: 2.2 million, of whom 1.6 million are flying. With strong demand, prices for immediate departure by air are high - but when the Easter holidays end, off-peak fares will revert to the very low levels where the "taxes, fees and charges" can often exceed the basic fare.

The only true tax levied on passengers flying from UK airports within Europe is £5 air passenger duty. But travellers may be paying many times more in "taxes, fees and charges". On a return flight between Gatwick and Amsterdam, for example, easyJet adds £10 to its basic fare. But British Airways will levy £45 in "taxes, fees and charges" for bookings made from Monday. Of this, £12 is BA's newly increased fuel surcharge, described by the airline as "regrettably unavoidable".

The no-frills airline Ryanair hit out at BA by offering 10,000 seats with the slogan "Fly for one-tenth of the price of BA's fuel surcharge - 60p." In practice, the real fare is around 20 times higher once a range of non-negotiable extras is added. Besides air passenger duty, customers are expected to pay for a wide range of commercial costs: passenger services, insurance and a "wheelchair surcharge" (35p, the amount Ryanair says it needs to lay on wheelchair assistance). Most passengers even incur a fee for paying Ryanair, which imposes a debit card surcharge of 80p.

Michael Cawley, the chief operating officer, defended Ryanair's policy of adding costs to the basic fare. He blamed "the ridiculous level of airport charges and government taxes".

Ryanair's main rival, easyJet, replied to the AUC report by claiming it would become "the first airline to introduce all-inclusive pricing". Within a few months, the fares shown on the easyJet website should reflect how much customers pay - subject to a £4 charge if a credit card is used. The airline accused its rivals - notably BA - of using the taxes and charges element of the fare as a "dumping ground for all sorts of charges". The intention was "to mislead consumers into believing that they offer fares low enough to compete with airlines such as easyJet".

BA rejected the criticism. A spokeswoman said: "When you make an online booking with BA, you are told at the outset how much the taxes, fees and charges will be."

The easyJet claim of being the first carrier to quote accurate fares is disingenuous: the move merely marks a return to the era when fares on every airline included all charges. A decade ago, the Conservative Chancellor, Kenneth Clarke, imposed the £5 air passenger duty for flights within Europe. "It sought to impose a fair burden on those who use aeroplanes," said Mr Clarke. Once passengers were accustomed to the idea of a tax on air travel, airlines started adding other charges - with BA at the forefront.

In 1999, BA announced unilaterally that it would "separate out" one of its commercial costs - the passenger service charge paid to airports in return for handling customers - and levy it separately. Other airlines soon followed suit.

Airline adverts are required to show inclusive fares, but in their online publicity the carriers have long flouted the spirit of that rule. In a case last month, a court in Essex decided it was acceptable for Ryanair to continue to separate out charges. The ruling appears to give carte blanche for yet more spurious taxes.

The next levy is likely to be for "air navigation charges", the sums paid by airlines to air-traffic control services and overflying rights. In the case of BA, a pensions surcharge looks the most appropriate new extra: on average, every traveller pays £14 on a round-trip ticket into BA's generous pension fund. The corresponding figure on easyJet is 36p.

Why this destination?

Rome

Easter in St Peter's Square will once again attract thousands of pilgrims, despite the frailty of the Pope. Away from the Vatican, the Italian capital becomes increasingly popular as the days lengthen and the temperature rises. For some existential angst along with the Coliseum and a capuccino, visit the Complesso del Vittoriano which is hosting an exhibition of works by Edvard Munch

Paris

Springtime in the UK's favourite foreign capital sees the start of the Paris Film Festival, which begins on Monday at the Cinema Gaumont Marignan on the Champs-Elysées The Paris Dance School presents its annual performance at the Opera Bastille, featuring the work of George Balanchine, Jose Martinez and a number of French composers. And the extra hour of daylight makes Paris even more alluring

Dublin

This weekend is your last chance to catch the the Irish Museum of Modern Art's Land of the Young exhibition which features works by Irish artists from the museum's collection. It's also the last weekend of the Winter Literary Pub Crawl following in the meandering footsteps of Joyce, Behan, Beckett, Shaw, Kavanagh and other Irish literary greats via (smoke-free) pubs with literary connections

New York

The Directors/New Films Festival is dedicated to discovering emerging and overlooked artists. The Metropolitan Museum of Art hosts an exhibition on the Renaissance artist Fra Carnevale and there's also the Annual Mad Hatter's Easter Bonnet Contest and Tea Party at the Tavern on the Green, Central Park West. Plus the opportunity to revitalise your wardrobe at bargain prices, thanks to the weak dollar

Barcelona

The core of the Catalan capital is enjoying a resurgence, with new hotels opening on and off the Ramblas and El Raval - the red light district, just to the west - rapidly gentrifying. To the east, La Ribera boasts some superb Catalan restaurants. Barcelona is the only major European city with a beach on its doorstep. And Gaudi's influence remains the signature of the city.

Edinburgh

The Athens of the North is at its best in spring and summer. Take a ghost tour of the Old Town, explore the Georgian grandeur of the New Town, then follow it up with some retail therapy at Jenners and Harvey Nichols. Meanwhile, at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, there's an exhibition of Andy Warhol self-portraits - the only UK showing.

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