Flying is such a pain.
Let me explain. A few weeks ago I booked a flight from New York to Orlando, Florida. I thought I had done my due diligence researching the cheapest flights on Google Flights and Skyscanner for almost an hour. When I decided I was going to buy my ticket from a certain airline because of the cheap airfare quoted, I thought I had gotten the best deal and so my homework was done.
I was naive. It’s been a while since I’ve flown and hadn’t counted on all the extra charges for what I considered basic amenities that would show up during the ticket booking process. Want to select a seat? Costs. Want to check your bag? Costs. Oh, would you like to bring hand luggage with you? Costs. I believe if they could get away with charging me money for using the toilet on the plane, there would probably be a charge for that as well. (You think I’m kidding, but there was a European airline who was seriously considering thisalthough the plan was later scrapped.)
Airline fees are annoying for consumers, while for airlines they are lucrative. Last year, American Airlines and Delta Air Lines generated $520 million and nearly $360 million, respectively, in baggage fees alone. Airlines now make most of their profits from fees rather than ticket fares, says Consumer Reports aviation adviser William J. McGee, an airline industry veterinarian who has testified several times before Congress on airline fees and other issues. (I emailed Airlines for America, which represents major carriers, about industry fees, but they haven’t responded.)
Fees passengers face include baggage fees, seat selection fees, and fees charged when you change or cancel a flight. Is it possible to avoid paying them? I asked aviation and travel experts, and here’s what they advised.
1. Understand your carrier and airfare class first. If you are flying with an ultra low cost carrier (which I did) – an airline that is focused on reducing operational costs, like Spirit Airlines, Frontier Airlines or Allegiant Air – the reality is that you are going to be charged charges for many amenities and services traditionally provided in the tariff, William says. By decoupling amenities previously built into the cost of the ticket, ultra-low-cost carriers can offer cheaper tickets that may become more expensive once you start paying extra (unless, of course, you care no amenities and all you need is a seat on the plane).
Other airlines have followed suit by unbundling their services. If you buy a ticket in basic economy class, the cheapest fare class, with many airlines, you will also be charged ancillary costs. And the cheaper the fare class you’re in, the higher the fees you’re likely to pay, says John Breyault, vice president of public policy for the nonprofit National Consumers League.
That’s not to say you should never fly Spirit or buy a basic economy ticket; it’s just good to ask yourself before you book the ticket if you’re willing to pay extra for amenities, says William.
💙 Bonus Tip: When checking in for flights, you can use tools such as the baggage filter in Google Flights or the Kayak app to see the cost of your flight plus charges for one checked bag and one carry-on bag.
2. Fly with an airline that does not charge certain fees. Your first two checked bags are free on Southwest, for example, and you’re allowed one bag and one personal item in the cabin. Southwest also does not charge flight change or cancellation fees.
3. Consider using an airline credit card. Many airline credit cards have no annual fee and offer perks like free checked baggage, says Zach Griff, senior reporter for travel website The Points Guy.
But be sure to review the terms carefully before signing up for a new credit card, and be aware that applying for a credit card may temporarily affect your credit score. If you end up not using the card much and you close that account, that could lower your score as well.
4. Use your credit card travel benefits. If you already have a credit card with great travel perks, take advantage of it. American Express Platinum (which includes a $695 annual fee) provides an annual $200 airline fee credit for an airline you choose each year and covers incidental charges such as checked baggage. The Chase Sapphire Reserve card (which has an annual fee of $550) has a travel credit of $300 per year, says travel blogger and Instagram influencer Angel Trinh. It’s worth weighing the benefits of the card against the costs of its annual fee before opening a new account.
5. If you are enrolled in a loyalty program, check your benefits. For those who fly often and with the same airline, airline frequent flyer programs often offer benefits such as free checked baggage or waivers of other fees for eligible members.
In addition to avoiding fees, how can you save money on airline tickets in general?
💸 Book early. If you buy your tickets a few weeks in advance, you can get better prices than if you buy them at the last minute.
📉 Use price alerts. Set up alerts on fare comparison websites and apps like Kayak and Hopper to notify you if the fare on a given route drops.
🏨 Consider a package. If you book a flight and hotel package through an airline or travel agency, your fare is often lower than it would be if you booked your ticket separately.
🔒 Lock in rates. Some airlines allow you to block a fare for free or for a small fee a few days before purchasing the ticket. You can use this time to shop in case there is a better deal.
✅ Prime point: Department of Transport rules also allow reservations to be canceled without penalty within 24 hours if tickets are purchased at least seven days before a flight is scheduled to depart. The 24-hour refund requirement, however, does not apply to tickets booked through online travel agencies, travel agents or other third party agentsyou should therefore contact the travel agent directly for a refund before contacting the airline.
Copyright 2022 by Consumer Reports – All Rights Reserved.