Flying the friendly skies doesn’t feel so friendly these days.
What seems like a mounting list of hidden and not-so-hidden airline fees can make travelers feel like they’re being taken for more than just one kind of ride.
And you’re not just imagining that flight-related fees seem to be buzzing through more and more of your travel budget. It’s a sign of the times.
The airline industry has been hit hard by both high fuel prices and the recession, Rick Seaney, chief executive officer of FareCompare.com, told WalletPop. As a result, it failed to turn a profit in 2009. But that changed last year as consumers started to help foot the bill for the airlines’ woes, “mostly on the back of fees,” Seaney says.
Fees to check baggage and change a ticket have hit consumers the hardest, he says. But that doesn’t mean travelers have no recourse.
Here’s a primer on how you can avoid a number of these fees or at least keep them to a minimum.
Bag Checking Fees
First-checked-bag fees started to become widespread in 2008, “coinciding to some degree with the run-up in oil prices,” Seaney says.
In July 2008, gas prices peaked at a whopping $140 a barrel.
So on most domestic flights the major carriers now charge about $25 each way for the first checked bag and between $30 and $35 for the second. Prices can really take off if you’re traveling as a family.
But if that’s not an option and you fly often, find out which airlines offer special membership rewards and frequent flier programs that waive baggage-check fees.
For example, Continental and Delta will waive some baggage fees if you book your flight using their branded credit cards. And while those airlines’ credit cards come with an annual membership fee, using it once a year to avoid the bag charge can cover that easily, Seaney says.
What’s more, members of frequent flier programs such as Continental’s OnePass Silver Elite aren’t charged to check a first or second bag.
Consider Shipping vs. Schlepping
In some cases, if you plan to travel with a lot of heavy bags, shipping luggage four or five days ahead can save you money.
Airlines will tack on an additional fee for luggage over 50 pounds. So it might work out cheaper to ship your luggage in advance via FedEx or UPS Ground, says George Hobica, president and founder of Airfarewatchdog.com.
For example, “You can ship 55 pounds of stuff via FedEx from Chicago to Orlando for under $40 each way,” he says. “On most airlines, a suitcase that weight would cost $115 each way.”
“The savings really kick in when you’re going shorter distances with heavy bags.” Just think of what you can save when flying your kid and his stuff off to college, he says.
A big added bonus of shipping vs. schlepping is that the shipping companies will track your bags much more closely and your luggage will be infinitely more secure in their hands, Hobica says. Consult Airfarewatchdog’s “Shipping Versus Checking” chart for a side-by-side cost comparison of checking your luggage at the airport vs. having it shipped.
Changing Your Ticket
Most major airlines charge a $150 fee to change a domestic flight (and as much as $250 for an international flight). There’s little way to get around this.
But if you are the type of flier whose trips often are subject to change, fly Southwest, which is currently the only airline that does not charge for a flight change. The airline will, however, charge you the price difference if the fare goes up.
It sounds simple, but in general don’t pay for a ticket until you are as certain as possible that you won’t need to make a change.
This is especially true for most leisure flights under $200, Seaney says. “If you change your mind, you are in essence throwing that ticket in the garbage.”
Frequent Flier Programs
Read the fine print when you’re signing up for airlines’ frequent flier programs. They might end up costing you more than they’re worth, Hobica says.
Although you’re earning bonus miles with these cards as a way to qualify for free flights, you’re likely paying an annual fee — usually $75 to $100, he says.
Airlines also add fees for cashing in your frequent flier miles, cashing in miles close to your departure date, and upgrading to business class from economy class. So what’s an alternative?
Consider earning cash for your flight with cash-back-rewards credit cards, Hobica says.
With cards such as American Express’s Blue Cash Card — which has no annual fee — and the Discover Cash Back Bonus Card, you’re earning 5% back in cash rewards for everyday purchases like groceries and gas, as well as clothing, restaurants, hotel stays and car rentals.
The benefit of these cards is that you’re not beholden to airlines’ fees, capacity controls and blackout dates, he says. Instead, “You can take the cash and buy a ticket.”
Choosing a Seat
You’ve already paid for your ticket, but there’s another fee to pick a seat on the plane? Come on. Still, some airlines now charge travelers to accommodate their window, aisle or legroom requests.
While these charges aren’t yet common and usually are between $5 and $10, they can be as much as $20 for an exit row seat.
“Consumers can get around the fees by not choosing the premium options, letting the airline select their seats and by flying an airline that allows you to choose your seat for free,” says Anne Banas, executive editor of SmarterTravel.com.
Check out Smartertravel.com’s Ultimate Guide to Airline Fees, which has a reference chart of seat selection fees, as well as other fees from all the major domestic carriers.