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A Frugal Flier's Guide to Airline Fees


Charges for checked baggage have become standard on most airlines. Together U.S.
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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.

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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.

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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.

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