It's no secret that the extra fees which airlines sneakily tack onto most domestic and international flights have increasingly become standard fare. But, why, then, does it always seem as though they're hiding in plain sight? Such hidden costs, like random carrier-imposed fees and mystifying fuel surcharges, travel under the radar, latching themselves onto the plane tickets of unsuspecting travelers who aren't bothered to read (or don't know about) the fine print.
"With more airlines embracing à la cart pricing, fewer and fewer amenities are now included with the basic fare," notes airfare expert Matthew Ma. Remember all those annoying, albeit free, things we used to take for granted, like sub-par meals, bags of too-salty peanuts, and paper-thin eye masks? Now, unless you want to pay for them, they're all things of the distant past.
Meet the Expert
Matthew Ma is co-founder of the airfare sale website, The Flight Deal.
Today, even the simplest choices and amenities airlines once offered free-of-charge carry hidden fees—and not doing your due diligence before booking will cost you. Ma maintains that hidden airline fees can easily fool even the most seasoned traveler every time. Here's what they are and how to avoid them.
Any specific fees incurred to book a flight stem directly from the method used to buy tickets. Typically, online booking is offered gratis, but some airlines (Alaska, JetBlue, United, and others) will charge a $10 to $35 "direct ticketing fee" (aka carrier interface charge, electronic carrier usage charge, or passenger usage charge) for purchases made over the phone or at the ticket counter.
Other airlines, such as Allegiant, Frontier, Southwest, and Spirit, encourage booking at their ticket desks for discounted fares. So if you don't mind standing in a potentially long line, buying in-person can shave up to $20 off your ticket, each way.
Hands down, extra baggage fees are the number-one charges that trip up most travelers, Ma says. "With pared-back basic economy fares now being the tickets of choice, it's important to understand how an airline deals with luggage," he adds. For example, American and United Airlines don't allow free carry-ons in the basic economy class unless you have elite status or a co-branded credit card, Ma notes. Bring one anyway, and they'll usually charge $25 each way, or an additional $50.
Fortunately, Alaska, American, Delta, Hawaiian, JetBlue, Southwest, and Virgin America offer free carry-on bags, so defer to them, especially if they're offering competitive fares for travel to your destination. If you can't avoid carrying on, be sure your bag doesn't exceed the airline's size and weight limits, either. If it looks too big or heavy, they'll measure it, weigh it, and then force you to check it (during check-in or at the gate), which now usually costs more than if you paid in advance, depending on the airline. So definitely brush up on typical airline baggage allowances before taking off.
According to Ma, the second most common hidden airline fee comes from selecting the best seats—the window, the aisle, exit row, slightly larger ones, and those closest to the front of the plane. Or in the case of Air Canada, American Airlines, Delta, and Spirit (and loads of others), this means choosing any seat at all. If you have the choice, it's best to stick with assigned seats because picking one (even if you and the rest of your bachelorette party want to sit together on the way to and back from Cabo) can be a costly affair.
Ma recommends checking out Kayak's comprehensive summary of airline fees to find out which carriers charge for seat preferences and other add-ons. And if you're wondering whether paying more for increased comfort is worth it, especially on a longer-haul flight, visit SeatGuru, a travel site that gives you access to a ton of airplane seat maps.
Frequent Flyer Fees
Cashing in those frequent flyer miles can also cost you money if you fail to book within the proper time period set forth by the airline (aka "close-in booking fees"), or book via a travel agent, for example. In fact, BudgetTravel writer Daniel Bortz reveals that "American and United both charge $75 if you book a flight with airline miles less than 21 days out, while Spirit charges a $15 fee for tickets purchased more than 180 days before departure." Plus, look into what it costs to change or cancel a flight you booked with miles—sometimes it's free, and sometimes it isn't. (If not, don't panic: You might still be able to get out of paying.)
Fees For Extras
Yes, gone are the days of free peanuts, pretzels, and sodas. (Southwest was the last holdout, and even it now charges $9 a pouch for its signature peanuts.) Free nonalcoholic drinks (and that includes bottled water unless you want them to pour you a cup of dirty airplane water), WiFi, and movies are no longer givens, either. And although JetBlue offers free WiFi (and Delta offers free domestic text-messaging), according to ConsumerReports, most other airlines charge from $8 for one hour of screen time to roughly $20 for an all-day pass.
Blankets, eye masks, pillows, and toothbrushes, too, will now cost you. But lest you think you're destined for a wide-awake eight-hour flight of twiddling your thumbs, an airline-branded credit card might help you out a bit: See if yours offers extra perks you'd otherwise have to pay for.
Change and Cancellation Fees
Ma says that before booking, it's also crucial to check an airline's policy on fees it charges for changing and canceling flights. "Per U.S. Department of Transportation regulations, all airlines must have a 24-hour risk-free cancellation policy if the flight departs or arrives here," he says.
According to CNTraveler's Meredith Carey, the tricky part isn't changing your ticket (and incurring or not incurring a fee), but it's really about whether canceling a ticket outright will turn out to be more cost-effective. From Alaska's to United's policies, 10 popular domestic airlines charge typical change fees. Just know what you're getting into before making any changes to your airline tickets.