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A Frugal Flier's Guide to Airline Fees
Finding a cheap flight these days isn't as straightforward as finding the lowest fare; consumers must factor in airline fees, as well.
In an industry pinched by low margins, we've seen airlines continually add and raise fees for what used to be considered the basics. Frontier Airlines recently announced fees of up to $100 for carry-on luggage and $2 for inflight refreshments such as coffee and soft drinks.
Baggage.Charges for checked baggage have become standard on most airlines. Together U.S. carriers raked in nearly $3.5 billion in baggage fees in 2012, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, up 3.8 percent from 2011. With the notable exceptions of JetBlue Airways and Southwest Airlines, all the carriers we looked at charge at least $20 each way for the first checked bag if you're traveling in the lowest fare class on a domestic flight. Expect to add another $50 to $200 if the bag weighs more than 40 or 50 pounds or measures more than 62 linear inches (length + width + height). That's not to mention additional fees for specialized items such as sporting equipment. Airlines assess these fees each way for round-trip flights.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, JetBlue allows travelers one free checked bag and Southwest includes two bags at no charge. There are a few ways to avoid fees for checked baggage on other airlines, as well. American, United, and Delta offer a free checked bag for passengers who pay for their flights using an airline-branded credit card. Road warriors who've earned sufficient status in a frequent-flier program often are likewise rewarded (as are passengers in higher fare classes). The most tried-and-true method of avoiding checked-luggage fees is confining your belongings to a carry-on, although that's not a sure thing. Along with Frontier, which will start charging for $25-$100 for a carry-on unless you book through its website, Allegiant Air charges $10-$75 for carry-on bags and Spirit Airlines charges $35-$100, depending on how far in advance you pay the fee. The way Spirit's fees are structured, it's actually $5 cheaper to check a bag than to carry on (you're still allowed one free personal item on the plane).
United recently launched a novel alternative to a la carte fees: a subscription service that starts at $349 a year for the first checked bag. At United's $25 rate, that amounts to about seven round-trip flights.
Change/Cancellation.Airline fees for changing or canceling flights generated more than $2.5 billion in revenue for U.S. carriers in 2012, according to BTS data, up 7.3 percent from 2011. The charges run between $50 and $200 and often vary based on the destination or duration of the flight, the type of ticket purchased, and when the request is made. Customers must also pay the difference in price if the new fare is higher than the original. On the other hand, if the ticket costs less, the airline may refund the difference, often in the form of credit for a future flight.
Change and cancellation fees are often lower for award tickets purchased with miles. Frontier and United don't charge at all for certain changes to those bookings. Again, customers with status in a loyalty program or an airline-affiliated credit card can sometimes avoid these airline fees altogether. Several carriers also offer pricier refundable tickets and premium economy seating options that exempt passengers from fees if they wish to cancel or alter their itineraries. American Airlines recently started giving the travelers the option to upgrade to a Choice Essential ticket for an extra $68 or a Choice Plus ticket for $88. Both come with no change fees, as well as a checked bag and early boarding, for far less than the $200 change fee (Choice Plus adds same-day flight changes, an alcoholic drink, and extra frequent-flier miles). Southwest stands out as the only airline that doesn't charge a fee for changing or canceling a domestic itinerary, regardless what type of ticket you buy.
Other Fees.Other common airline fees concern seating -- more legroom, priority boarding, a preferred location, or even the privilege of choosing your seat. Premium options such as United Economy Plus gather all these benefits under a single umbrella fee. Here, again, United is offering an annual subscription, but it starts at $499 and doesn't guarantee an Economy Plus seat will always be available.
Take a look at the fine print before booking a flight with a smaller "budget" airline, as there may be fees in places you hadn't even considered. Spirit assesses a $10 fee just for printing your boarding pass at the airport. A couple of other unique fees are built into the airline's quoted fares: a "Passenger Usage Fee" of $9 or $17 each way, avoidable only if you book in person at the airport, and an "Unintended Consequences of DOT Regulations Fee" of $2 each way, a reaction to a Department of Transportation rule that allows consumers to cancel a reservation within 24 hours or hold it for 24 hours without paying, provided they're booking at least a week in advance. (The former spurred a class-action lawsuit.) Frontier isn't alone in charging for nonalcoholic beverages; Spirit and Allegiant have similar fees (and others, such as Virgin America, charge $2-$3 for premium options such as energy drinks). Then again, some so-called budget airlines have defined themselves partly by eschewing fees. Here's looking at you, Southwest.
Lowest Airline Fees
Southwest Airlines Fees
Southwest assesses no change or cancellation fees and offers passengers two free checked bags, making it a no-brainer for travelers who don't want to be nickel-and-dimed. The few charges the airline does impose ($75 to carry on a pet, for example) are among the industry's lowest.Read Full Review and Compare Prices »
Alaska Airlines Fees
Alaska consistently matches or beats competitors and hasn't contrived to charge customers for things like extra legroom or priority boarding. The $20 fee for a checked bag is the lowest among airlines that charge and extends to the third bag (most others charge at least $75).Read Full Review and Compare Prices »
JetBlue Airways Fees
JetBlue earns an honorable mention as the only airline besides Southwest that doesn't charge domestic passengers to check a bag. It also offers free in-flight entertainment via DirecTV and charges competitive prices for items such as overweight baggage.Read Full Review and Compare Prices »
Most Ubiquitous Airline Fees
Spirit Airlines Fees
Tickets may be cheap, but a minimum $35 fee for a carry-on bag plus an additional $30 to $100 for a checked bag, along with myriad other fees, make a flight on Spirit more than you might expect. Other unusual fees include $2-3 for nonalcoholic beverages and up to $50 just to pick a seat.Read more »
AirTran Airways Fees Review
Virgin America Fees Review
Delta Air Lines Fees Review
American Airlines Fees Review
US Airways Fees Review
United Airlines Fees Review
Allegiant Air Fees Review
Spirit Airlines Fees Review
Alaska Airlines Fees Review
JetBlue Airways Fees Review
Southwest Airlines Fees Review
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