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10 Ways to Avoid Airline Fees

Alicia Jao

According to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics, annual U.S. baggage fees and ticket cancellation and change fees continue to generate roughly $3.4 billion and $2.4 billion, respectively, for U.S. airlines. Despite this consistent stream of revenue, the airlines continue to charge travelers more fees. Spirit Airlines and Allegiant Air, the most notorious airlines for charging fees, have only been rewarded for their strategy by investors in the public markets. Spirit's stock price has increased more than 75 percent over the last year, while Allegiant's stock has grown more than 40 percent. In contrast, Southwest and JetBlue, who have maintained their free carry-on bag and free first checked bag policies, have both experienced approximately 20 percent declines in their stock prices over the same time period.

The bottom line: U.S. airlines are only incentivized to charge travelers more fees. Airline fees aren't going away any time soon. To avoid paying hundreds of dollars in fees (on top of rising airfare costs), travelers should be aware of the various types of airline fees, the varying fees by airline, and the range of fee terms.

1. Fly Southwest or JetBlue.

Baggage fees are often the most difficult airline fees to avoid. Many travelers have gone to great lengths to avoid these fees by stuffing everything into carry-on luggage. However, with both Allegiant and Spirit now charging for carry-on luggage, more airlines may follow suit. Short of wearing all your clothes on board or purchasing a special travel coat with multiple compartments, we recommend flying Southwest or JetBlue. Not only do both airlines still offer free carry-on luggage, but both airlines also waive baggage fees for the first checked bag. Southwest goes even further, continuing to offer a second checked bag free.

2. Measure and weigh your bags.

While checking a bag can easily cost $40 to $70 roundtrip, it is the additional fees that really break the bank. If your bag weighs more than 40 to 50 pounds, you will likely be charged overweight baggage fees, which cost anywhere from $50 to $400 per bag roundtrip in addition to the checked baggage fee. If your bag is more than 62 linear inches (measured by length + width + height), you will likely be charged oversized baggage fees, which cost anywhere from $50 to $600 per bag roundtrip in addition to the checked baggage fee and overweight baggage fee, if applicable. It definitely pays to measure and weigh your bags. However, the definitions and pricing structures of oversized and overweight baggage vary greatly by airline. Make sure to confirm each airline's oversized and overweight baggage policy in advance.

3. Book your tickets online.

With the exception of Spirit Airlines and Allegiant Air, U.S. airlines typically do not charge travelers for booking tickets online. Booking online will help you avoid phone booking fees, which range from as low as $15, up to $45, depending on the airline. If you are booking a short flight, these fees can constitute a significant percentage of the total cost.

4. Be certain about your travel plans.

Refundable tickets are significantly more expensive. While it most often makes sense to purchase cheaper, non-refundable tickets, it can cost you much more if you need to change your non-refundable ticket. Ticket change fees range from $75 to $175. All the more reason to fly Southwest. Southwest is the only major U.S. airline that does not charge ticket change fees. Instead, they offer credit redeemable for future air travel on Southwest. Alternatively, travelers can try to minimize change fees by changing tickets online. Online ticket change fees are $10 to $25 lower if you purchased your ticket from Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Spirit Airlines, US Airways, or Virgin America.

5. Book your tickets directly through the airlines.

Surprisingly, some airlines charge an additional fee if you need to change a ticket that was booked by a third party, such as a travel agent or an online travel agent (e.g. Expedia or Orbitz). United, Frontier, and Delta have ticket change agency fees, ranging from $25 to $50. Delta, however, makes an exception and waives the fee if the change is made online.

6. Don't pay for "premium" seating in economy.

Airlines continue to reserve an increasing number of select seats in economy or coach cabins as "premium" seating for frequent flyers and travelers willing to pay more fees. Not only does this mean it is more challenging to find adjacent seats for you and your travel companion(s), but this means you will likely have to pay for what has historically been a standard window or aisle seat. Emergency exit row seats, once a burden and responsibility for the leisure traveler, also now command a premium for the little bit of extra legroom they generally provide. Don't despair. If you don't want to pay the extra fees, even just on principle, select any available seat when you book your ticket. Then, keep checking online for seat availability. Airlines typically release some of the reserved seats as demand declines, e.g. when frequent flyers upgrade their tickets.

7. Make sure your carry-on items can fit underneath the seat.

Most travelers are savvy enough to avoid baggage fees by carrying on as much as possible. As a result, overhead compartments fill up fast. Some airlines offer priority boarding for $5 to $10 each way for travelers who want to ensure compartment space. However, you can avoid these fees by making sure your carry-on fits underneath the seat in front of you. Even if you decide to risk it, you should make sure your bag meets your carrier's pre-specified carry-on luggage size. Checking bags at the gate is a hassle and can also cost you. Spirit Airlines, for example, recently announced it will charge $100 per carry-on each way (beginning in November) if the bag is checked at the gate.

8. Bring a book and/or magazine.

Most airlines allow passengers to carry on reading material separately. It will not count towards your carry-on and personal item size and/or weight restrictions. Taking advantage of this policy will provide you with entertainment on your flight. Particularly on longer flights, having an interesting book or magazine will prevent you from succumbing to the temptations of onboard Wi-Fi and entertainment. Many airports offer free Wi-Fi. If you plan ahead, you can send your work emails before boarding, save the $12.70 most airlines charge for a 24-hour pass, and curl up with a good book on your flight.

9. Bring your own food.

Airline food prices (and airport food prices) are inflated because they have to factor in the higher cost of using airport space (i.e. airport surcharges). Bringing your own food will help save you some cash. More importantly, unless you are traveling through San Francisco's SFO Virgin America terminal or New York's JFK JetBlue terminal where "state-of-the art" includes gourmet dining, bringing your own will ensure you get a good meal. Let's face it: Airline food really isn't food unless you are flying first class, so why pay an arm and a leg for it?

10. Dress warmly & bring an extra sweater.

It's definitely a bit chilly thousands of feet in the air. Dressing warmly and bringing extra layers will help keep you comfortable and hopefully help protect your body from catching germs and viruses that may be circulating around. The real impact on your wallet: you won't consider paying extra for a pillow and blanket. That's right. Airlines charge for that now!

Alicia Jao is the VP of Travel Media at NerdWallet, which recently launched an airline and baggage fee comparison tool to help you save money on air travel.

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