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Fee Bargains: The Best Airlines for Avoiding Pricey Add-Ons

Posted on 6/26/2013 16:51 EST

Online services have made it easy to compare airfares and find the lowest ticket prices. But for travelers who don't factor in fees for "optional services," the overall cost of a flight can be surprisingly high. What used to come standard -- a carry-on bag or beverage, for instance -- may now come at a cost. This summer Frontier Airlines will become the latest to start charging for those amenities. At the same time, existing fees are rising. United Airlines, US Airways, Delta Air Lines, and American Airlines have all hiked their domestic change fees to $200 -- reason enough to do a little research before you buy. Cheapism.com has compiled detailed charts comparing a range of airline fees levied by 12 U.S. carriers and picked the best and worst when it comes to extra charges. Here are the rankings, with fees listed for domestic flights in the lowest fare class.

Photo by www.flickr.com/Sam Howzit

1. Southwest Airlines. Southwest is hands-down the best airline for travelers worried about fees. It's the only one that lets passengers check up to two bags without paying and charges no fee to change or cancel a flight. Customers pay only the difference in fare.
First checked bag: Free
Change/cancellation: Free

2. Alaska Airlines. Alaska waives many fees for residents of its namesake state, through the free Club 49 program, and keeps extra charges relatively low for everybody else. Unlike most airlines, it doesn't tack on fees for preferred seats, extra legroom, or priority boarding.
First checked bag: $20

Change/cancellation: $75 online, $100 by phone

3. JetBlue Airways. JetBlue offers travelers one free checked bag (but demands $40 for the second) and complimentary DirecTV, as well as free snacks more substantial than the usual pack of pretzels. Change and cancellation fees are graduated based on the price of the flight, so passengers don't face the possibility of paying more to modify a reservation than to buy the ticket in the first place.
First checked bag: Free

Change/cancellation: $75-$150

4. Frontier Airlines. The new fees -- $25-$100 for a carry-on-bag and $2 for beverage service -- are sure to aggravate some passengers, but the former is waived and fees are generally among the industry's lowest for customers who buy tickets directly from the airline, rather than through a third party.
First checked bag: $20 online, $25 at the airport beginning July 11

Change/cancellation: $50 for Frontier bookings, $100 for third-party bookings

5. AirTran Airways. Southwest acquired AirTran a couple of years ago and expects to fully absorb the brand by 2015. AirTran passengers can already take advantage of some Southwest policies, such as free checked bags, by booking through the parent company.
First checked bag: $25

Change/cancellation: $75

6. Virgin America. Virgin America charges middling fees in general but is notably lenient when it comes to excess baggage. The third checked bag costs the same as the first -- $25, compared with at least $75 on most other airlines (including Southwest) -- and almost no one charges less for oversize and overweight bags.
First checked bag: $25

Change/cancellation: $100

T7. Delta Air Lines. With fees comparable to the other legacy carriers', Delta shouldn't surprise many travelers with its extra charges. Along with American and United, it waives certain checked-bag fees for customers with airline-branded credit cards.
First checked bag: $25

Change/cancellation: $200

Photo by www.flickr.com/Pylon757

T7. American Airlines. The steep $200 change fee means you'd better know where you're headed and when. Otherwise, upgrade to Choice Essential (for an additional $68 round trip) or Choice Plus (for $88 round trip) to avoid change fees. Those fares include one checked bag and other benefits.
First checked bag: $25

Change/cancellation: $200

T7. US Airways. US Airways is set to merge with American Airlines, pending government approval, but that should make little difference in terms of fees, which are already almost the same on both airlines.
First checked bag: $25

Change/cancellation: $200

T7. United Airlines. United collected more than $5.3 billion in ancillary revenue in 2012, according to a recent report by consulting firm IdeaWorksCompany, far more than any other airline. It was the first to increase its domestic change fee to $200 and last week raised fees for changing or canceling an award ticket, as well.
First checked bag: $25

Change/cancellation: $200

11. Allegiant Air. This discount airline charges fees including $2 for nonalcoholic drinks; $10-$75 for carry-on bags; up to $75 to select a seat; and $10 per person, per segment to book through its website. Most other airlines charge booking fees only for reservations made by phone or in person.
First checked bag: $15-$75, depending on the route and how far in advance the fee is paid

Change/cancellation: $50 per segment

12. Spirit Airlines. Spirit's model is to charge as little as possible for airfare and then add fees for virtually everything else. That includes seat selection ($1-$50), boarding passes printed at the airport ($10), carry-on bags ($35-$100), and in-flight beverage service ($2-$3).
First checked bag: $35-45, depending on how far in advance the fee is paid

Change/cancellation: $115 online, $125 by phone or at the airport

by Louis DeNicola (Google+ Profile)

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