How to Avoid the Most Common Airline Fees

Dana Covit

Knowledge is power, friends! And when it comes to travel, a little knowledge can save you a lot of cash—which means more room to spend on the things that will make your trip truly special. In the age of rising airfare prices and an abundance of fees for every manner of service, it pays to do a little research before you book that flight. To ensure you’re armed with all of the tips and tricks for avoiding those airline fees we’re all too familiar with, read on.

Booking Fees

When planning your travel, consider heavy traffic days and, if possible, fly on a Wednesday. Business-related traffic tends to be heaviest on either sides of the weekend, so fares tend to be most expensive on Mondays and Fridays.

As for when to book, the latest research tends to suggest that fares are at their lowest on Tuesdays, mid-to-late afternoon, around 3 p.m. EST. Also, no need to book crazy early, either: Domestic flights booked 45 days out and international flights booked 60 days out are usually at their cheapest. And note that prices on early morning, evening, and red-eye flights tend to be cheaper than flights during daytime hours. While booking, be sure to check aggregator sites as well as the individual websites of the airlines you are interested in. Sometimes, direct airline websites will have the best deals.

When searching for flights, consider clearing your cookies or cache, or even using a different computer. “While there’s no proof or hard evidence, there is growing anecdotal evidence that suggests airlines are tracking your behavior online, and potentially even tracking IP addresses, and prices could go up for flights that are searched frequently,” notes Peter Greenberg for Quartz.

Premium Seat/Seat Assignment Fees

Some airlines, like Spirit, charge you a fee to reserve any seat in advance of your actual travel date. To avoid this, simply do not select and pay for a seat—they will assign you a random seat when you check in. When it comes to paying extra for more legroom in the premium economy seating area, note that the difference in space is minimal and often not worth the 30 to 80-percent price jump. If you’re set on upgrading, call your airline a few days before the flight—some carriers may release a few reserved seats as demand drops.

Cancellation/Changing Flights Fees

Plans change. People get sick. We’ve all been there! But trying to cancel or change a flight can prove so tricky that oftentimes, people will stomach the loss, thinking there’s no alternative. While some airlines (United, in particular), charge $200 and more for a flight change, others are much more agreeable—and a little known secret: Same-day changes are almost always the most affordable. So if you can wait it out, you should.

  • Southwest Airlines has no change or cancellation fees, but you will have to make up for any difference in fare. Refunds are given as a credit that can only be used by the person whose name appeared on the original ticket.
  • Alaska Airlines does not have a change or cancellation fee for changes made more than 60 days before departure. After this window, the fee is $125. Same day changes are $25.
  • JetBlue rewards its frequent fliers: Change and cancellation fees are waived for JetBlue TrueBlue Mosaic elite members and others traveling under the same travel reservation.
  • United Airlines charges $75 for same-day changes. That fee is waived for MileagePlus Premier Gold, Premier Platinum, and Premier 1K members.

Other things to keep in mind…

Following FAA regulations, airlines must now offer free 24-hour holds, or refunds within 24 hours of booking, so long as the flight is more than seven days in the future. If you book a flight that you later need to cancel, hold out on paying that fee. The airline might announce a schedule change, delay, or flight cancellation that will entitle you to a refund without paying the fee.

It used to be that round-trip tickets were cheaper, but not anymore! Most carriers charge the same total price regardless of whether you book two one-way tickets or a single round-trip itinerary, but the difference in change or cancellation fees between the two can be dramatic. If your travel plans are on the more open side, book two one-way tickets so that if you need to cancel, you’ll only lose on the amount you already paid.

Carry-On Baggage Fees

The first order of business here is to know exactly what to expect of your airline before you book by consulting this rather exhaustive chart of fees. If possible, fly JetBlue or Southwest. Both airlines accommodate carry-on bags for free, and let you check some luggage at no additional cost. JetBlue allows you to check your first bag for free, while Southwest allows you to check two bags for free. 

Checked Baggage Fees

Many airlines do offer baggage fee cuts for airline cardholders. So if you’re frequently traveling with lots of bags, it’s worth considering signing up. Delta travelers who have the Gold, Platinum or Reserve Delta SkyMiles American Express cards can check their first bag for free for the cardholder and up to eight additional passengers on the same reservation. Bags usually cost $25 per bag, so it’s a big savings. The American Airlines Citi Advantage cards save you from the checked bag fee of $25 for the primary cardholder and up to four people on the same reservation. If you have a lot of checked luggage, consider upgrading to business class. These seats often come with two or three checked bags free of charge, and sometimes it can be as little as $40 for an upgrade.

Overweight Baggage Fees

If your bags are overweight, you can anticipate getting charged between $50 and $400 per overweight bag round-trip, depending on the weight and your destination, on top of the checked bag fees you’re already paying. So, make sure to check on airline limits and weigh your bags beforehand as well.

Pet Fees

As usual, make efforts to ensure you are not surprised or caught off guard by the rules and any fees. Familiarize yourself with each airline’s policy and plan ahead accordingly. Most airlines will only allow one or two pets on each flight, so it’s important to book early. To avoid any problems, it’s best to call the airline to check that there will be room for your pooch before you go ahead and buy your own ticket. For obvious reasons, it’s best to fly direct if you’re going to have a pet with you.

Other Fees

Almost all airlines now charge for food and beverage service. Because there are limits in place on liquids, take the time to pick something up in the terminal, or better yet, pack a lunch. You’ll save and not risk eating a really unfortunate, lukewarm chicken potpie.

Do you have any tips or tricks to add to this list? Tell us in the comments!

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