Airline Fees

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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. Budget airlines, like Spirit, Allegiant, and Frontier, in particular, may promise big savings on tickets upfront, but frugal flyers should beware the backend charges that may dramatically cut into those initial discounts. To help consumers keep up with ever-changing costs, we've catalogued airline fees for 10 top U.S. carriers. This guide compares baggage fees, change fees, and other optional service charges across airlines.

Our Picks

A Frugal Flyer's Guide to Airline Fees

Southwest Airlines, our top pick, has defined itself partly by eschewing fees. It’s no surprise that this budget carrier was the only low-cost airline to receive a 5 out of 5 rating for cost and fees in J.D. Power & Associates' annual North America Airline Satisfaction Study. It came in second in the low-cost category overall.

JetBlue Airways continued its reign atop the category in J.D. Power's report. Although it earned an "about average" rating for cost and fees, the airline offers some notable perks for free. Passengers praise the airline for providing complimentary (nonalcoholic) drinks and snacks more appealing than tiny packets of peanuts, and each seat comes with a personal entertainment system with live DirecTV. In-flight Wi-Fi is also available and free on most JetBlue aircraft, although a high-speed connection costs $9 an hour. It seems no JetBlue fees are high enough to dent consumers' overall satisfaction with the airline.

Alaska Airlines' fees for regular passengers are among the lowest across board. The airline took first place among traditional carriers in the J.D. Power study, with top marks in every category and the only 5 out of 5 rating for cost and fees among its legacy airline competitors.

By contrast, the business model of carriers such as Spirit Airlines and Allegiant Airlines is to keep base fares low and offer the option to buy many add-ons, which frustrates travelers used to all-inclusive airfares. The consulting firm IdeaWorksCompany found that Spirit garnered 43.4 percent of its 2015 revenue from fees and other ancillary sources. More than a third of Allegiant’s 2015 revenue came from such sources. No other airlines in the global survey rely more heavily on ancillary revenue.

Keep in mind, though, that different travelers have different needs. A budget airline that offers cut-rate tickets and the promise of not paying for anything you don't need -- which, apparently, includes an overnight bag -- might be a fantastic fit for a quick jaunt to a nearby city with nothing but a briefcase. Not so for those traveling with small children or planning to descend on relatives loaded with holiday gifts. Couples looking for guaranteed seats together as they embark on a romantic getaway should know that they're going to pay more for the privilege on most ultra-low-cost carriers.

Indecisive travelers, or those with unpredictable schedules, should take into account that most airlines now charge hefty fees for schedule revamps and cancellations: a change of mind costs about $200 on most major carriers. Book a ticket with member miles and you may be looking at not only a cancellation fee but a price to get those miles redeposited into your account. Want a furry friend by your side? Some carriers are more Fido-friendly than others.

The basics aside, travelers these days are often forced to decide whether they're willing to pay a premium for creature comforts such as a little more legroom or a bit of in-seat diversion. And be prepared to load up on nibbles in advance. Gone are the days when chips and nuts were the complimentary signatures of in-flight amenities. Many airlines now charge for even so much as a sip of soda or water.

With so many ancillary charges to keep track of, and different price structures for different airlines, it can be hard for consumers to make an informed choice about which carrier will ultimately be best for their travel budget (and their sanity). We delved into the fine print to aggregate all the fees and provide detailed comparison charts. Here's an overview of what we found.

Baggage.

Charges for checked baggage have become standard on most airlines. Together U.S. carriers raked in more than $3.8 billion in baggage fees in 2015, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, up from $3.5 billion in 2014. 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. Most airlines have now formed partnerships with credit companies to create branded credit cards and many of these, particularly those of the major players -- American, United, Delta, JetBlue, and Alaska Airlines -- offer a free checked bag for passengers who pay for their flights using affiliated plastic. Virgin America gives its Visa holders two free bags. Road warriors who've earned sufficient status in a frequent-flyer program often are likewise rewarded (as are passengers in higher fare classes).

While Alaska Airlines charges $25 a bag for the first two checked bags on flights outside of Alaska and $75 for additional bags, the airline has created a free program for residents of its namesake state, called Club 49, which offers members two complimentary checked bags per flight, among other perks. The same benefit naturally accrues not only to first-class passengers and elite-level members of the airline's Mileage Plan program but also to frequent flyers with sufficient standing on American Airlines. Active-duty military personnel receive up to five bags free. Virgin America also is comparatively generous in its baggage allotments. Although the airline charges $25 for a checked bag, the price for each bag remains the same whether passengers are checking one bag or 10, while competitors up their fees as the baggage tally rises.

While the most tried-and-true method of avoiding baggage fees with the traditional carriers is to confine belongings to a carry-on, many low-cost airlines charge for those, as well, and the rates for bags carried onboard are sometimes higher than for those stowed below. Frontier charges $35 to $60 for a carry-on, Allegiant Air charges $15 to $75 per segment flown, and Spirit Airlines charges $35 to $100, depending on how far in advance the fee is paid. With Spirit and Frontier, it's actually $5 cheaper to check a bag than to carry on (passengers are still allowed one free personal item on the plane). Considering the exorbitant rates attached to bags checked at the gate, it’s imperative that travelers make reasonable luggage estimates (and stick to them!) when booking a flight.

United offers a novel alternative to à 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. The airline also recently announced plans to offer a lower-priced ticket option, the Basic Economy fare, which would mimic in many ways the price structure of a ultra-low-cost carrier. Most notably, travelers would be charged for any carry-on baggage aside from a single personal item to be stowed under a seat. United is presenting the move as a victory for consumer choice: Frugal flyers willing to forgo things like seat selection can get the stripped down prices of a budget carrier along with the more extensive route map, partnership perks, and onboard amenities of a big-name brand. The move has been met with some backlash, however.

Change/Cancellation.

Airline fees for changing or canceling flights generated more than $3 billion for U.S. carriers in 2015, according to BTS data, accounting for 1.8 percent of total operating revenue. United Airlines, Delta Air Lines, and American Airlines raised their fees for altering reservations on domestic flights to $200 in 2014, and fees on most other top carriers run between $70 and $150, often varying based on 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. No changes can be made to United’s new Basic Economy tickets.

With JetBlue, the cost to change or cancel a flight depends on the price of the ticket, the fare type, and the number of days until departure. With the exception of Blue Flex tickets, which allow free schedule adjustments, the lowest change fee is charged for changes made at least 60 days before departure. JetBlue’s graduated fees ensure that the charge won't be higher than the original airfare, a genuine possibility on other airlines with change fees as high as $200. Alaska Airlines' fees are also comparatively reasonable in this respect. The $125 change/cancellation cost is completely waived if the change is made at least 60 days before departure. A confirmed seat on another flight the same day costs only $25, the lowest such fee among the airlines we researched that offer this option.

Southwest stands out as the only airline that doesn't charge a fee for changing or canceling a domestic itinerary regardless of ticket type or frequent flyer status, although tickets purchased in the Wanna Get Away fare class are refunded in the form of credit, which must be used within one year of the booking date.

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 fees altogether. Several carriers also have pricier refundable tickets and premium economy seating options or packages that exempt passengers from fees if they wish to cancel or alter their itineraries. For example, with its Power Trip package, Virgin America offers travelers no change fees, a checked bag, and priority security passage and boarding, as well as first dibs on preferred seating options. The cost of this service is $39 to $79 each way, which, not accounting for the other perks included, is significantly less than the $100 to $150 change fees normally charged by the airline.

Other Fees.

Additional airline fees commonly concern seating -- more legroom, priority boarding, a preferred location, or even the privilege of choosing a seat at all, which used to be standard.

Most carriers now offer premium seating for a price, and United offers an annual subscription service for its Economy Plus option, which provides more spacious seating toward the front of the plane for quicker debarkation. That subscription starts at $499, however, and doesn't guarantee an Economy Plus seat will always be available. Alaska Airlines is phasing out its Preferred Plus seating choice and replacing it with Premium Class seating, which includes more legroom and complimentary snack boxes and cocktails, as well as early boarding. The cost is $15 to $50 depending on the flight length.

On the other side of the aisle, with many budget carriers -- Spirit, Allegiant, and Frontier included -- the seating fee isn't paid in the interest of extra legroom or a premium location; it's a fee for choosing any seat at all, which can increase costs for families or couples who want to make sure they sit together. Spirit charges up to $50 to choose a seat rather than have one assigned, and fees on Allegiant can run up to a whopping $80.

The boarding process for Southwest differs greatly from other airlines' procedures. Instead of being assigned a seat, passengers are given a letter and number code that determines their boarding order. When their group is called, they can choose any open seat. That means Southwest customers won't see any fees for preferred seat assignments or premium seats with extra legroom. Boarding order is assigned based on check-in time, which explains an optional $15 charge for EarlyBird Check-In -- 12 hours earlier than other passengers, for a greater chance of finding an ideal seat. A recent change also lets Southwest customers pay $30 to $40 for a guaranteed position in the first boarding group.

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. For example, Spirit assesses a $10 fee just for printing your boarding pass at the airport counter. A couple of other unique fees are built into the airline's quoted fares: a "Passenger Usage Fee" of $9 or $18 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. Spirit isn't alone in charging for nonalcoholic beverages; Frontier and Allegiant have similar fees (and others, such as Virgin America, charge $2 to $3 for premium non-alcoholic options such as organic iced tea).