Monday-Morning Moving: 7 Ways To Beat High Airline Fees

Knowing when to book can cut your costs -- and the associated fees.
Knowing when to book can cut your costs — and the associated fees.

By Sharyn Alden

When I was checking out after buying cosmetics online from a big department store, I had to run a gauntlet of added items and impulse buys before I could actually pay for what I ordered. For $2 more, for example, I could add a sample lotion, for another $2 I could add a small tube of cream, for another $2, a sample lip liner, and on and on.

I had to check yes or no to each offer to get to what I initially came to the site for, and by the time I actually paid for my items, I was done.

What does this shopping nightmare have to do with buying airline tickets? If you’re a seasoned traveler you know the answer: Airlines do the same thing all the time. They’re just not as brazen.

Airlines are notorious for having layer upon layer of added or “hidden” fees, and here’s the problem with that: Those fees aren’t usually published along with all the other information you get when shopping for a flight. Airlines are bound by law to full disclose the cost of their product, but full disclosure doesn’t mean full and equal disclosure. If fees are published online they may be hard to find, meaning that if you’re booking your flight yourself, you’ll have to do some digging on your airlines’ sites to find your trip’s overall cost.

The fees don’t stop once you book your flight. Suppose you’re cruising at an altitude of 35,000 feet and you’re hangry, your neck is killing you, it’s freezing in the cabin, and you’d trade just about anything for a comfy pillow, a blanket, and a snack.

On most flights you can get these things, but they may come with a price tag that you’re unwilling to pay. You may feel you are being taken advantage of — $10 for a pillow? Really? — because you’re part of a captive audience.

You’re definitely captive, but you’re not alone. Most airlines are adding ancillary fees whenever and wherever they can. In 2008, ever since American Airlines became the first U.S. airline to charge customers a $15 fee for the first checked bag, travelers have seen price tags added to a growing portion of traditionally free airline services.

These fees add up to big business. Last year airlines collected around $438 billion in revenues from fees, or about $17.49 per passenger.

This amount can vary wildly depending on the airline. Spirit, which is notorious for charging for everything, including seat selection and printing your boarding pass at the airport, derives 38 percent of its revenue from fees. Almost 40 cents of every dollar you pay Spirit goes to cover a fee.

United’s fee structure is much less aggressive than Spirit’s, but it still pulls down roughly $5.7 billion each year in fees, or about $42.46 per passenger.

You’ll find these fees on all sorts of services, like making a flight reservation over the phone (that one really gets me), in-flight Wi-Fi, movies, priority boarding, alcoholic drinks (and soda on some flights), snacks, carry-on bags, cancellation fees, or bonus miles.

Keep in mind each airline sets its own fees and can change them whenever it feels like it. The following are general estimates of fees you might encounter:

  • Bag check: first bag, free to $40; second bag, free to $50; third bag, $50 to $150
  • Flight reservation cancellation or change fee: free to $200
  • Over-the-phone and in-person booking: free to $50
  • In-flight TV or movie: free to $15
  • In-flight Wi-Fi: free to $15 for a 24 hours
  • Extra legroom and seat selection fee: $5 to $195
  • Onboard snacks: free to $15
  • Meal: $4 to $15
  • Alcoholic drinks: $5 to $10
  • Pillow or blanket: free to $10

Here’s what you can do to avoid some of these extra fees.

  • Consider shipping baggage via UPS, FedEx or Express Mail. It usually costs less than checking bags at the airport, and you can track them easier than if the airline loses your bags. FedEx and UPS even have luggage bags and luggage boxes designed for shipping luggage.
  • If you travel a lot – as in all the time – consider DUFL. For $99 per trip and $9.95 a month, DUFL will store a suitcase for you with your clothes and personal items, and send it to your destination. It will also clean and press your clothes between trips. It’s pricey, but totally worth it if you’re that kind of traveler.
  • Book online. The old-fashioned method of picking up the phone to talk to reservations will usually set you back the price of a tank of gas.
  • Bring snacks, inflatable pillow, and a travel blanket so you don’t have to fly cold, hungry, and broke.
  • Use Expedia’s Baggage Calculator to find the overall cost of what you’re buying before you hit the buy button. This helpful tool provides flyers with accurate baggage fees and policies for different airlines and paid seating options that showcase premium seating choices and their corresponding prices.
  • Use a travel agent. They may not be able to avoid every fee, but they can avoid some of them – and at the very least, they’ll be open and upfront about extra fees and costs.
  • Buy travel insurance. No, travel insurance won’t lessen the fees you pay. But it will help you get those fees back if you have to cancel a trip because of health issues or other unforeseen circumstances.

So is there an exit plan for adding fees? Probably not. It would be hard for airlines to walk away from $438 billion in fee revenue.

In fact, this may just be the start. In one recent study airline passengers were asked if they would pay to make a fast exit when their flight arrives at its destination. 15 percent of those interviewed said they would happily pay more to get off the plane first.

Wonder no more where your next fee is coming from.

Sharyn Alden is a long-time travel writer with a media-relations business, Sharyn Alden Communications, Inc., based in Madison, Wis. Contact her at sharynalden@gmail.com.