According to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics, annual U.S. baggage fees and ticket cancellation and change fees generate roughly $3.4 billion and $2.4 billion, respectively, for U.S. airlines. And the airlines continue to charge travelers more fees.
Spirit Airlines and Allegiant Air, the airlines most notorious for charging fees, have been rewarded for their strategy by investors. Spirit's stock price has increased more than 75% over the past year, while Allegiant's stock has grown more than 40%. In contrast, Southwest and JetBlue, which do not charge for carry-on bags or for the first checked bag, have both experienced declines of around 20% in their stock prices over the same period.
The bottom line: U.S. airlines are incentivized to charge travelers even more fees. Airline fees aren't going away soon. To avoid paying hundreds of dollars in fees (on top of rising airfare costs), travelers should be aware of the various types of airline fees, the varying fees by airline and the range of fee terms. Following are 10 ways to eliminate or reduce the fees you pay.
1. Fly Southwest or JetBlue
Baggage fees can be difficult to avoid. Many travelers go to great lengths to avoid these fees by stuffing everything into carry-on luggage. However, with both Allegiant and Spirit now charging for carry-on luggage, more airlines may follow suit. Short of wearing all your clothes on board or purchasing a special travel coat with multiple compartments, we recommend flying Southwest or JetBlue. Not only do both airlines still offer free carry-on luggage, they also waive baggage fees for the first checked bag. Southwest goes even further, continuing to offer a second checked bag free.
2. Measure and weigh your bags
While checking a bag can easily cost $40 to $70 round trip, the additional fees are what really break the bank. If your bag weighs more than 40 to 50 pounds, you will likely be charged an overweight baggage fee, which can run from $50 to $400 per bag round trip, on top of the checked baggage fee. If your bag is more than 62 linear inches (measured by length plus width plus height), you will likely be charged an oversized baggage fee, which can run from $50 to $600 per bag round trip, in addition to the fees for checked and overweight baggage, if applicable. It definitely pays to measure and weigh your bags. However, the definitions of and charges for oversized and overweight baggage vary greatly by airline. Be sure to confirm each airline's policies on oversized and overweight baggage ahead of time.
3. Book your tickets online
With the exceptions of Spirit Airlines and Allegiant Air, U.S. airlines typically do not charge travelers for booking tickets online. Booking online will help you avoid phone booking fees, which range from $15 to $45, depending on the airline. If you are booking a short flight, these fees can constitute a significant percentage of the total cost.
4. Be certain about your travel plans
Refundable tickets are significantly more expensive. While it most often makes sense to purchase cheaper, nonrefundable tickets, they can cost you much more if you need to change your travel plans. Ticket change fees range from $75 to $175. All the more reason to fly Southwest -- it is the only major U.S. airline that does not charge ticket change fees. Alternately, travelers can try to minimize change fees by changing tickets online. Online ticket change fees are $10 to $25 lower if you purchased your ticket from Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Spirit Airlines, US Airways or Virgin America.
5. Book your tickets directly through the airlines
Surprisingly, some airlines charge an additional fee if you need to change a ticket that was booked by a third party, such as a travel agent or an online travel agent (e.g. Expedia or Orbitz). United, Frontier and Delta have ticket-change agency fees, ranging from $25 to $50. Delta, however, waives the fee if the change is made online.
6. Don't pay for 'premium' seating in economy
Airlines are reserving an increasing number of seats in economy or coach cabins as "premium" seating for frequent fliers and travelers willing to pay more fees. Not only does this make it more challenging to find adjacent seats for you and your travel companion(s), but you will also likely have to pay for what once was a standard window or aisle seat. Emergency exit row seats, once a burden and responsibility for the leisure traveler, also now command a premium for the little bit of extra legroom they generally provide. Don't despair. If you don't want to pay the extra fees, even just on principle, select any available seat when you book your ticket. Then, keep checking online for seat availability. Airlines typically release some of the reserved seats as demand declines, e.g. when frequent fliers upgrade their tickets.
7. Make sure your carry-on items can fit underneath the seat
Most travelers are savvy enough to avoid baggage fees by carrying on as much as possible. As a result, overhead compartments fill up fast. Some airlines offer priority boarding for $5 to $10 each way for travelers who want to ensure compartment space. However, you can avoid these fees if your carry-on fits under the seat in front of you. Even if you decide to risk it, you should make sure your bag meets your carrier's specified carry-on luggage size. Checking bags at the gate is a hassle and can also cost you. Spirit Airlines, for example, recently announced it will charge $100 per bag each way (beginning in November) if the "carry-on" is checked at the gate.
8. Bring a book and/or magazine
Most airlines allow passengers to carry on reading material separately. It will not count toward your carry-on and personal item size and/or weight restrictions. Taking advantage of this policy will provide you with entertainment on your flight. Particularly on longer flights, having an interesting book or magazine will prevent you from succumbing to the temptations of onboard Wi-Fi and entertainment. Many airports offer free Wi-Fi. If you plan ahead, you can send your work emails before boarding, save the $12.70 most airlines charge for a 24-hour pass, and curl up with a good book on your flight.
9. Bring your own food
Airline food prices (and airport food prices) are inflated, because restaurants have to factor in the higher cost of using airport space (i.e. airport surcharges). Bringing your own food will save you some cash. More importantly, unless you are traveling through San Francisco's SFO Virgin America terminal or New York's JFK JetBlue terminal, where "state-of-the art" includes gourmet dining, bringing your own will ensure you get a good meal. Let's face it: Airline food really isn't food unless you are flying first class, so why pay an arm and a leg for it?
10. Dress warmly and bring an extra sweater
It's definitely a bit chilly thousands of feet in the air. Dressing warmly and bringing extra layers will help keep you comfortable and hopefully help protect you from germs and viruses that may be circulating around. The real impact on your wallet: You won't consider paying extra for a pillow and blanket. That's right. Airlines charge for those now!
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