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Rising fuel costs and fees hit passengers in the pocketbook

Planning your family vacation for the summer? Haven't flown in a few years? Be prepared for sticker shock.

The cost of air travel has risen substantially in the past few years, with fares increasing steadily and, more recently, airlines slapping fees on various services that were free.

In-flight food, checking multiple bags, flying standby, traveling with overweight luggage, and even sitting in an aisle seat or an exit row now cost extra on many carriers, including American Airlines, United Airlines, Delta Air Lines and others.

Even low-fare carrier Southwest Airlines, which is renowned for its stance against extra fees, has begun charging to check a third bag and recently began selling energy drinks during flights.

The fees can surprise those who haven't flown in a while.

"Most consumers aren't aware of them until they show up at the airport," said Brent Bowen, a professor at the Aviation Institute at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and co-author of the annual Airline Quality Rating survey. "That's the real problem."

The Star-Telegram took a nonscientific look at how a host of fees charged by various airlines could affect the travel costs for a family of four flying from Dallas/Fort Worth Airport to Orlando in late July. Compared with 2006, our imaginary family faced additional costs as high as $502, an increase of almost 35 percent of the total cost of the trip. The extra expense came from higher fares combined with charges for luggage, curbside check-in, in-flight food and a reserved aisle seat.

While most travelers won't have to pay every extra charge, and cheap fares are still available in many cases, it's clear that most consumers should expect to shell out more cash to fly this summer.

And people are still flying, despite the higher fares and the fees. A study from the online travel agent Travelocity, based in Southlake, showed that despite the record high fares, there are no big indicators of a summer slowdown.

"People are still flying," Bowen said. "But at some point, the consumer hits a breaking point, and the only real question is when."

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