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When Flying For Peanuts, Use Caution

The offer may seem too good to be true: a round-trip ticket on Startup Airlines from New York to Los Angeles for only $49.95.

Before you Startup with your vacation plans, travel professionals advise you to be careful. New airlines have been known to vanish in thin air, so to speak.

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To protect yourself from the possibility that Startup may go out of business before its only airplane can get you to Los Angeles, it is important to pay with a credit card. ''If something goes wrong, you won't have to pay the bill,'' says Rudy Maxa, a Washington-based reporter whose travel commentary, ''The Savvy Traveler'' is heard regularly on Marketplace, National Public Radio's evening business show.

If you do make a reservation on a discount airline, here are some things you might want to be aware of:

* There is a good chance the planes are going to be full. Mr. Maxa calls it the ''cattle-car atmosphere.'' Because there is no first class or business class on most of the discount planes, the aircraft can look like a continuous tube of seats. You may also end up on an airline, such as Southwest, that has no assigned seating. It is a first come, first-to-board situation.

* The airline may have some unusual methods to its cheapness. For example, many of the discount airlines don't issue tickets, only confirmation numbers. You will need a photo ID to get your boarding number or pass. You may also find that your travel agent won't issue you a ticket - there may not be enough profit. In addition, there is a good chance the airline is not connected to any of the main computer reservation systems.

* Some discounters don't have interline agreements, so you may have to lug your baggage back up to the check-in area if you are transferring flights. Also, don't expect any fancy meals. Peanuts and sodas might be offered.

* Don't expect Startup to credit your miles toward your major-airline frequent-flyer account. Some discounters have agreements with major airlines, but most do not. Instead, they may have their own program, offering a free ticket for every eight or 10 trip segments.

Despite these caveats, Maxa says, flying on a discount airline can be fun. The flight attendants at Southwest are known for their pranks, for example. He recalls a flight where the attendants asked everyone for a round of applause for a first time flyer - the captain. You can only hope Startup has the same sense of humor.

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