By: Elissa Richard
The great airline fee boom that first kicked off in 2008 is undoubtedly here to stay – it’s afforded a big-time budget boost to domestic airlines, morphing into ever-larger and stranger manifestations over the last couple of years. It’s little wonder then that air travelers might find themselves in need of a little refresher course on navigating the à la carte menu in the sky – if you’re not careful, a slew of what were once-free amenities can really drive up the total cost of your trip. But there are ways to put a cap on costs for domestic flights, with just a little advance planning: Read on for our expert tips on avoiding airline fees. Dodge attempts to be nickel-and-dimed on bottled water (yes, water!), pillows, headsets, and even sitting in an aisle seat by planning ahead. While the sky seems to be the limit on what they’ll charge for next, the restrooms and airsickness bags remain free . . . for now. Download our Domestic Airline Fees chart for a quick-and-easy guide to the current luggage and in-flight fees being levied by airlines.
Carry On to Put Fees in Check
The most common sense solution for avoiding checked baggage fees is to simply not check your bags. With nearly every U.S. carrier (excluding JetBlue and Southwest) charging an average of $20 to $25 for a first checked bag (and all airlines, with the exception of fee-free Southwest, charging around $25 to $35 for the second one checked) on each leg of a flight, it just makes (dollars and) sense to carry on. Checked bag fees have jumped about $5 to $10 on most carriers since their 2008 debut, and several carriers are now even charging fees for second bags on transatlantic jaunts (averaging $60 to $70). Even perennial customer favorite JetBlue upped its second-checked-bag fee on domestic flights to $35 from $30 in March 2011. Invest in a strong, yet lightweight bag that’s in accordance with the bulk of airlines' carry-on allowances (check individual airline's websites for details as sizes do vary) and reusable toiletries containers (sized under the TSA’s mandated maximum of 3 ounces) and leave worries of lost luggage, hefty additional fees, and long waits at ticket counters (and carousels) for checked bags – behind. The one discouraging exception? Spirit Airlines rolled out a highly contested fee for carry-on bags back in August 2010, which means that you’ll pay $20 to $45 to carry a bag on when flying them, making it surprisingly more cost-effective (in most cases) to actually check your bags (with fees that average $18 to $38).
Download our Domestic Airline Fees chart for a quick-and-easy, up-to-date reference covering baggage and à la carte airline fees.
If You Must Check Bags, Check Wisely
If you know you'll be checking bags, be sure to factor those extra costs in ahead of time – while that US Airways ticket might appear to cost less on paper, their $25 first-bag fees could very well make paying the extra $20 for a Southwest ticket (with whom bags fly free) more economical in the end.
If you and your clan are heavy packers, be sure to check out United's "Premium Baggage" program, allowing travelers to pay a $349 fee up front, then fly their bags – along with those of up to eight people on the same reservation – fee-free for a full year. Also look into your credit card policy for a potential workaround – a couple of American Express card variations, for instance, allow for charge-free or reimbursed check-ins.
The steepest checked baggage fees are tacked onto bags that are overweight (usually above 50 pounds) or oversized (from 62 inches). So while it may at first seem logical to try to cram everything into one bag instead of using two (to avoid paying for two checked bags), know that while a first checked bag won’t typically set you back more than $25, if it ends up being oversized or overweight it can cost anywhere from $49 (AirTran) to $200 (United, for over 70 pounds). Considering second checked bag fees hover around $35 on most airlines (bringing the average total for two checked bags to about $60), it's near-always the more economical option to check two bags than to go overboard on one. Alternatively, think about packing a small tote bag in your luggage that can be pulled out to use as a quick-fix carry-on to transfer luggage overflow that might make your checked bag overweight by just a pound or two. If you must travel with more than two bags, or with overweight or oversized luggage, looking into a shipping agent like FedEx or the USPS for cost comparison is a smart move, as rates can actually be quite competitive. If shopping online around the holidays, avoid hefty airline fees by having gifts shipped directly to the recipient ahead of time, rather than lugging them in tow.
Don’t Get Beat on Your Seat
The majority of domestic airlines are now charging for "preferred" seat selection, meaning seats with extra legroom or those that come with priority boarding – you’ll pay $20 for an exit row seat on AirTran, $10 or more for some extra legroom on JetBlue, and $4 or more for early boarding and front-of-plane seating on American (along with a handful of other perks). To avoid doling out the extra cash on these extra airline fees, check in online just prior to your flight (most airlines open up online check-in 24 hours before scheduled departures), when non-assigned seating inventory usually opens up to all passengers. If you are able to pick your seats in advance, however (the bulk of airlines are still not charging for non-preferred seating assignments), consider booking seats at the back of the plane since you’ll usually board first and have first dibs on luggage space, meaning you won’t have to store your bag under the seat in front of you, taking up precious legroom, or be forced to check it at the gate, translating to an extra wait when you disembark. You’ll also get dibs on first-come, first-served amenities (for any that are still left!) like blankets and newspapers.
Pack Sweet Dreams With You
If you’re looking to catch some onboard shut-eye, pack an inflatable pillow to carry on. Available at many travel and luggage stores, they can be quite comfortable, are more sanitary than airlines’ recycled arsenal, and takes up very little room; you can even fit one in your briefcase or purse. This way, you can get around the $7 to $10 in extra airline fees that JetBlue, US Airways, Virgin America, and, most recently, American Airlines, now charge for their pillow and blanket sets. And remember to bring a sweater onboard to combat that infamous airplane chill.
Bring Your Own Headset
A handful of airlines (American, Continental, Delta, and JetBlue among them) are now charging anywhere from $2 to $3 for headsets that allow travelers to tune into the in-flight video entertainment. Simply bring your own iPod earbuds or headphones aboard for superior quality, instead of dishing out on unnecessary airline fees for their cheapie versions, which you'll most likely end up trashing. And don't be surprised if you're expected to dole out for what you catch on the screen onboard – Delta charges $1 to $6 for movies, HBO, and TV shows; JetBlue has first-run movies priced at $6; and American announced plans to add streaming video to an additional 400 planes by the end of 2012, charging $1 to $4 for movie and TV show downloads – consider bringing along your own portable DVD player or laptop to kick those particular fees to the curb.
Fight In-Flight Food Fees
Who would've ever thought that we would one day actually miss airline food?! As hard as it is to believe, that day is here, with Continental, the last remaining carrier to still provide complimentary meals on domestic flights, joining ranks with its competitors (as of October 2010) to charge even for light snacks. Fight back against those pricey in-flight food fees by packing a brown bag meal ahead of time to carry on. One airline has extended this airline fee frenzy to non-alcoholic beverages, as well – in fact, you’ll pay as much as $3 for bottled water if you’re flying with Spirit! Since TSA regulations bar travelers from bringing their own water through security checkpoints, try bringing an empty bottle and filling it up at the airport water fountain, and perhaps even adding an iced tea or sport drink mix, many of which are now served in single sizes. It may be a little more work, but it’s better than shelling out $3 for water.
Pack that Plastic as Cabins go Cashless
If even after mastering all of these tips to avoid airline fees, you still find yourself pining for something once you're in flight, you'll want to be sure to have packed your plastic, as more and more airlines move towards "cashless cabins." Over the last few years, the lengthy list of carriers with credit card-only policies has grown to include nearly every domestic carrier.
Join the Club
Several airlines – including American, Continental, US Airways, and United – will waive baggage fees if you are an elite member of their frequent-flyer program. Remember to sign up for your carrier’s frequent-flyer program before booking your flight to start accruing points, and if you are already a member of a program, keep in mind that maintaining loyalty to them might very well pay off in the long run in terms of skipping airline fees. On a related note, Continental's Chase credit card holders are eligible to check one free bag per passenger, as well as for one other person traveling with a primary card-member, on both Continental and United. Similarly, Delta-branded American Express holders may check their first bag for free (along with up to nine travelers on the same reservation) on all Delta flights. American offers a free first checked bag on domestic flights for the cardholder and up to eight passengers on the same reservation with its Citi Executive World Elite MasterCard.
Fly Southwest for Freedom From Fees
Southwest has been reveling of late in its fee-free structure, which it owes largely to the fuel "hedges" that the company put into place back in 1998 – basically a type of insurance policy against rising fuel prices that locked in their fuel rates at well below what other airlines have had to dish out when barrel prices spiked in 2008. It was a smart business move that has saved the airline plenty of money and has paid off well for both themselves and their customers till this day. Visit their website and they proudly advertise slogans like “Bags Fly Free.” Indeed, customers' first two checked bags are freebies (and it's a reasonable $50 to lug along a third or overweight bag). You also won’t pay a dime to book fares on the phone or in person, while most other carriers tack on airline fees of $15 to $45 dollars for the 'privilege’ of dealing with a real, live person. Snacks and (non-alcoholic) drinks remain lip-smackingly free. They’ll even let you change your flight plans and pay absolutely nada (versus domestic change fees of up to $150 on other carriers) – instead, you’ll get a flight credit that is good for one year. The one exception to their blissfully fee-free standing, however, is a $10 early boarding fee, though that's one fee we see as a welcomed upgrade, considering the first-dibs standing it allows when confronted with the airline's unique no-seat-assignment policy.
Squeaky Wheel Gets the Grease
When airline attendants told passengers that a can of soda cost $2, as US Airways attempted to do at the onset of the airline fee free-for-all, a little whining went a long way – because enough passengers did indeed make a fuss, the airline did away with their charges for non-alcoholic beverages. United also backed off from plans to charge for meals on transatlantic flights, attributing their decision to their customers’ “direct, candid feedback.” Likewise, it was largely the public uproar in the face of Spirit’s decision to charge for carry-on bags back in August 2010 that prompted other airlines to promise their carry-on policy would remain fee-free (even if Spirit has stuck to their guns on that front). We’ve seen government in action in response to passenger complaints, too – the public's grievances led to the Department of Transportation enacting new rules for tarmac delays, passengers bumped from flights, and lost luggage in August 2011, while regulations to force airlines to provide full disclosure on taxes and fees associated with ticket costs, a longstanding gripe with travelers, are set to go into effect in January 2012.
Just remember – there’s a fine line between a little complaining and making a scene that requires a TSA escort off the aircraft! If you’re not up for a public uproar, do write and e-mail the carrier directly to complain about their airline fees. The TSA customer service forum (https://contact.tsa.dhs.gov), unveiled in July 2010, is another welcomed outlet for traveler complaints.