- Published on
- By Louis DeNicola
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, airlines continually add and raise fees for what used to be considered the basics. Spirit Airlines charges fees of up to $100 for carry-on luggage and $2 to $3 for inflight refreshments such as coffee and soft drinks. United Airlines, Delta Air Lines, US Airways, and American Airlines raised their fees for canceling or changing a domestic flight to $200 in 2014. To help consumers keep up with the ever-changing costs, we've catalogued airline fees for 11 U.S. carriers. Compare baggage fees, change/cancellation fees, and other optional service charges in the charts on the following pages. Here's an overview of what we found.
Southwest Airlines Fees Review
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 ($95 to carry on a pet, for example) are among the industry's lowest.
Alaska Airlines Fees Review
Alaska consistently matches or beats competitors across the board. The $25 fee for a checked bag extends to the second bag (most others up the cost to $35 or more). The $125 fee for a flight change/cancellation, already on the low side, is waived 60 days or more before departure.
JetBlue Airways Fees Review
JetBlue earns an honorable mention for free extras such as DirecTV and in-flight snacks. Change fees can be relatively low, but baggage fees are now in line with most other carriers.
Allegiant Air Fees Review
This discount airline manages to provide low fares by asking passengers to pay for seemingly everything a la carte. Allegiant charges up to $80 for seat selection, up to $75 for a carry-on bag, and $2 for in-flight beverage service.
Spirit Airlines Fees Review
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 to $3 for nonalcoholic beverages and up to $50 just to pick a seat.
A Frugal Flyer's Guide to Airline Fees
Baggage.Charges for checked baggage have become standard on most airlines. Together U.S. carriers raked in more than $3.5 billion in baggage fees in 2014, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, up more than 5 percent from 2013. Almost every carrier we looked at charges at least $15 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, 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-flyer 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. Frontier charges $30 to $60 for a carry-on, Allegiant Air charges $10 to $45 per segment flown, and Spirit Airlines charges $35 to $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 $2.98 billion in revenue for U.S. carriers in 2014, according to BTS data, up 6 percent from 2013. 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 doesn'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 gives the travelers the option to upgrade to a Choice Plus ticket with no change fees. The cost is $80 to $89 each way, less than half the $200 change fee, and includes a checked bag, early boarding, an alcoholic drink voucher, and increased frequent flyer earnings. 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, although bookings in the Wanna Get Away fare class are refunded in the form of credit.
Other Fees.Other common airline fees concern seating -- more legroom, priority boarding, a preferred location, or even the privilege of choosing your seat, which used to be standard. 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. Frontier isn't alone in charging for nonalcoholic beverages; Spirit and Allegiant have similar fees (and others, such as Virgin America, charge $2 to $3 for premium options such as energy drinks). Then again, some airlines have defined themselves partly by eschewing fees. Here's looking at you, Southwest.