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Travel Adviser

For cheap flights, it's location, location, location

Luckiest travelers live near airports with non-gouging carriers

By Chris McGinnis
Special to CNN

Air Transportation

(CNN) -- Are you lucky when it comes to air travel? If you live near an airport that's the hub of a low-fare carrier, you are very lucky to be blessed with low prices and few restrictions. But unfortunately, air travel luck is not spread uniformly across the country, and major carriers continue to gouge where they are able.

"None of the big carriers offer low pricing unless they are forced to," airfare trend expert Bob Harrell of Harrell Associates in New York told CNN.

Lady luck has been kind to travelers in Atlanta, Georgia; Chicago, Illinois; Denver, Colorado and New York with the presence of, respectively, AirTran, ATA, Frontier and JetBlue. And if you live in Florida or California, that luck extends to you since these low-fare carriers make frequent trips between their hubs and your sunny locales.

Based on fares tracked and analyzed last week, Harrell says that other lucky cities include Las Vegas, Nevada, Phoenix, Arizona and Baltimore, Maryland owing to the presence of both Southwest and America West.

With low-fare carriers in these markets, travelers can expect fair prices and few surprises. This is a big reason why travel volume is way up in these cities, and low-fare carriers are flourishing.

But some cities seem downright cursed when it comes to getting low fares, and the disparity in fares is alarming -- especially if you don't want to (or can't) stay over a Saturday night.

Here's what I mean by alarming. Let's say you live in Chicago or Atlanta and want to fly nonstop to Denver. With low-fare carriers in all three cities, you can rely on finding a decent fare. When I checked this week for flights in July, roundtrip fares ran about $200-$240 round trip with no Saturday night stay required. Not bad. If you needed to go next week, the fares rise to about $350. Still decent.

But let's say you live in Cincinnati, Ohio, an unlucky city sorely lacking low-fare service, and want to fly to Denver. Book in advance and agree to stay over a Saturday night in July, and the lowest fare on Delta (the only carrier that flies non-stop) is around $425. If you're a business traveler and want to come home on Friday, Delta's lowest fare is about $700 for that privilege.

Charlotte, North Carolina, is another unlucky city. To fly nonstop to Denver, opting to stay over a Saturday night in July, you'll pay $320 on U.S. Airways. If you want to make a midweek trip in July, that fare more than doubles to $741. And if you need to go next week on a business trip or an emergency, you'll pay a shocking $1,175. Whoa! (But if you're willing to take a one-stop flight on low-fare carrier ATA via Chicago, the same trip would be just $279, saving you or your company nearly $900.)

Based on his firm's data, Harrell says that other unlucky cities, which endure significantly higher average fares than others include: Boston, Massachusetts; Washington; Dallas, Texas; Minneapolis, Minnesota and Detroit, Michigan. "Atlanta and Philadelphia are hybrid cities -- they enjoy low average fares on routes where there is low-fare competition, but pay significantly higher fares on routes where there is none," said Harrell.

The Washington area should migrate from the unlucky to the lucky list when Independence Air cranks up at Dulles International Airport on June 16 with one-way fares ranging from $39 to $178 to 35 destinations.

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