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Beware of higher fees on some student fares

For years, cheap and flexible student fares have been the key that’s allowed budget-driven young travelers to get out and explore the world. And, the limited restrictions and low fees on these special tickets made changing travel plans easy. But?before you lay down cash for your next flight?you should be aware of recent changes in the rules for student airfare that could cost you a bundle if you’re not careful.

What’s the deal?

In the past, a student ticket was defined as a discounted student-only fare contracted between an airline and a travel agency. Exclusive benefits including fewer restrictions and low change fees were part of the package: If you purchased a student fare but needed to change dates, you’d only be charged $25. If you had to cancel altogether, you’d pay $100. Fees for changes on non-student fares would be much higher. However, that’s not the case across the board any longer.

Because of financial hardships in the air industry over the past few years, some airlines such as British Airways, Air France, and Northwest have been forced to alter the rules for student tickets by charging much higher fees for trip cancellations and date changes. Now, you could pay up to $100 per change if you’ve purchased a student airfare but need to fly on different dates. And, some airlines are currently charging cancellation fees of up to $250 or making fares 100-percent nonrefundable.

What’s being done to help student travelers on a budget?

Student travel agents have been working with the airlines, advocating for student travelers who need flexibility in their travel arrangements but can’t afford big penalties. “That?s almost the number one part of my job,” says Guy Downes, senior product manager of Travel CUTS. “[I tell the airline representatives], these students don?t have a lot of money. They?ve got flexible plans; changing dates is just a given. They can?t be paying 200 bucks to make a change.”

The student travel agencies have made headway with a few airlines. Recently, United and Lufthansa teamed up under one contract and reduced the fee for students making changes on transatlantic flights to $50?as long as the change is made through a student travel agency, not the airline.

Other airlines recognize the value of the student market, so chances are they?re not going to do away with student specials anytime soon. Even with many air carriers moving toward the more restricted types of student tickets, a few airlines that hadn’t previously offered any type of student fare have instituted student tickets with the old, less-restricted rules. For example, China Airlines recently started selling student fares, charging $25 for date changes and $100 for cancellations.

What should students do to get the best air deal?

Overall, despite the changes in rules and fees, student fares are still one of your best options for cheap, flexible travel. Student tickets generally cost less than the non-student fares you’d find online on sites like Expedia or Orbitz. Plus, the non-student fares on these sites are usually nonrefundable or have exorbitant fees for any changes. If you buy a ticket from a student travel agency like Travel CUTS, STA, or CTS, you’re guaranteed help if you need it. These agencies have contacts worldwide?either with their own offices overseas or with other partner agencies?that can help students while they?re away from home.

Before booking a student fare, do your homework and you won?t be surprised with a hit to your wallet if your travel plans change. Check out all the ticket options so that you get the best deal for your journey. Some questions to ask yourself and your travel agent are:

  • How long is this ticket valid? This is an especially important question for those doing a study- or work-abroad program. In the past, student tickets were valid for 12 months, which was fantastic for students tacking on extra travel time once their studies were finished. But now, airlines occasionally offer sale fares targeted toward students that may require you to return much earlier?some within 30 days.
  • Is this ticket refundable? If the ticket’s nonrefundable, you’re out the full cost of the fare should you cancel. If it is refundable, ask how much the cancellation fee is and what the rules are concerning cancellation (e.g., is it possible to cancel right up to the date of the flight or is there an advance notice requirement?).
  • What are the fees for changing the dates on my ticket, and do I make changes with the airline or the travel agency? That last part is essential. If you need to change your dates and you have a student ticket with the more flexible, $25 date-change rules (these tickets are always paper tickets), do not change your ticket directly with the airline unless you feel like paying a much higher fee. It?s imperative that you make changes through a student travel agency. With the more restrictive tickets (which generally can be electronically ticketed), the only way to make the change is to go through the airline directly.

For those of you who would favor buying online, it’s possible to get all the benefits of student tickets without having to leave your home. STA and StudentUniverse have booking engines on their websites, and Travel CUTS is projected to have a booking engine by summer 2004. Some student fares booked online are e-tickets (such as those Student Universe sells); just print out the confirmation page when you’re finished booking and bring it to the airport when you fly. Other fares require paper tickets, so you’ll have to pay shipping fees to have the tickets mailed to you.

Though student fares are often the lowest-priced and most flexible option, cheaper fares can sometimes be found on sites like Expedia, or from the airlines themselves. Do a sweep of the big airfare booking sites and individual airlines’ websites to see what’s available for the dates you plan to travel. This will give you an idea of the overall price range and set a benchmark on which to judge the value of a student fare when you call a travel agent or visit a student travel website. Being aware of all the options will ensure a wise purchase.

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