How to Sidestep Airline Fees and Keep Travel Costs Down

How to Avoid Airline Fees
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Flying with kids? The good news is that airfares have dropped in recent years. The bad news? Airline fees have more than made up for any would-be savings. These days, you should consider your ticket price as simply the base price of getting from A to Z. Anything else you want—better seats, checked bag, inflight wi-fi, and so on—will likely have an extra charge.

According to an Ipsos Public Affairs survey released in 2016, two-thirds of passengers reported that they prefer à la cartepricing for tickets—where passengers pay for the services they want—over bundled pricing. And because 86 percent of those surveyed said that price was the most important factor when deciding to fly, in theory the no-frills fares give these customers the power to choose which services are most important to them.

But to keep your costs down, the trick is to pick your poison and avoid every airline fee that you can. These tips can help you steer clear of unwanted costs.

Pick the right airline. When it comes to fees, not all airlines are created equal. Southwest Airlines stands out as the only airline that does not charge a baggage fee for the first two checked bags.

Need change your ticket for another flight? Southwest does not impose a ticketing change fee, which the big legacy carriers all charge a $150 change fee on domestic flights.

Pay with the right credit card. If you own multiple credit cards, try to align your payment to your chosen airline to avoid pesky fees by choosing the appropriate airline-affiliated credit card. For example, if you are flying on United or Continental, you can will get one free checked bag and complimentary priority boarding if you pay with Chase’s OnePass Plus MasterCard. Flying on Delta? Pay with the Delta SkyMiles card from American Express and you get one free checked bag for yourself and up to nine companions.

Handle it yourself. For the past few years, airlines have steadily introduced fees to travelers who turn to a human agent when it's possible to handle a transaction online or at an airport kiosk. Typical examples include flight check-in, printing boarding passes, and checking bags. Phone booking fees can add an additional $15 to $45 to your cost.

Don't overpack. Baggage fees are a biggie. Simply checking a bag will cost you between $40 and $70 roundtrip (unless you fly with Southwest, which lets you check two bags for free). If your bag goes over the weight limit (typically 50 pounds), you can add an additional $50 to $400. Likewise, if your bag is oversized (more than 62 inches in overall dimensions, measured L x W x H), you will pay an additional $100 to $600 per bag.

If you're flying on a budget airline, you might even be charged for carry-on bags. In 2010, Spirit Airlines began charging passengers for carry-on bags that fit in an overhead bin. As of now the carrier charges $35 for a carry-on bag if you pay when booking your flight online, but if you wait until you get to the airport, the fee jumps to $100.

Think through your plans before booking. Refundable tickets are super convenient but they sure are pricey. On the other hand, booking a non-refundable ticket and having to change it can also rack up fees. Ticket change fees are typically $100 each way for domestic flights and can go much higher.

How to avoid paying? You can change a ticket for free within 24 hours of booking, so be particularly careful in reviewing your travel dates and times during this period. If you miss the 24-hour window, you'll pay the change fee as well as the difference in price for new tickets. Always do that math. Since change fees are so steep, sometimes it is cheaper to just eat the cost of the first ticket and start over.

Pay up front for extras. With some airlines, the price of add-ons goes up the longer you wait to pay. For example, Spirit Airlines charges a carry-on fee that costs $25 if you pay at the time of booking; wait until the day of your flight and the price climbs to $100. Likewise, if you know you want to use the inflight wi-fi, pay up front to get a better deal. 

Feed your crew before you board. The days when airlines served meals onboard are long gone. Nowadays many carriers charge for snack boxes and bistro-styled meals at prices that can run $10 per person.