When it comes to flight prices, there’s good news and bad news. The good news is, airline base fares are cheaper than ever. The bad news? Airline fees offset the savings.
Airlines earn billions of dollars every year in fees, which are charged for everything from checking your luggage to buying a snack to picking your seat. These can add up fast, turning your cheap flight into a money pit. But when airlines unbundle their fees, you have more opportunities to skirt them. Here are a few ways to avoid those frustrating extra costs.
1. PICK THE RIGHT AIRLINE.
It sounds like a no-brainer, but most airlines are so riddled with fees, it can be hard to compare apples to apples. Depending on your situation, it may actually be cheaper in the long run to book a more expensive flight on a fee-free airline.
“For example, Southwest Airlines still offers your first two checked bags for free,” Kyle James of Rather Be Shopping tells mental_floss. “If your whole family is traveling, SWA could be a cheaper option when you factor in no fees for luggage.” Patti Reddi of The Savvy Globetrotter adds that some airlines allow one free checked bag for international flights.
So before settling on an airline, read the fine print. (Airfarewatchdog curates a big, frequently updated list of airline luggage fees, so that's a good place to start.)
2. SIGN UP FOR AN AIRLINE CREDIT CARD.
Some airlines will waive certain fees for passengers with an affiliated credit card. “If you always fly on the same one or two airlines and check luggage, consider applying for a credit card affiliated with those airlines to avoid checked bag fees,” Reddi says.
These cards typically offer perks for passengers that can offset at least some of the extra fees. Of course, you want to pick and use your credit cards carefully, as many of them also include annual fees. For example, the Citi / AAdvantage MasterCard offers a free checked bag on every domestic flight, but it also costs $95 a year. If you don’t fly often, that’s probably not worth it.
3. BOOK DIRECTLY WITH THE AIRLINE.
Booking through a third-party site may promise helpful fare comparisons and the best deals, but it has a downside. For one, if you need to change your flight, some airlines will charge you if you didn't book with them directly. “Most of these fees are in the $25-$50 range,” says James. “Avoid change fees by bypassing travel sites like Expedia and Orbitz.”
What’s more, the discount site itself might charge a fee for switching a flight, meaning you’ll pay twice just to change your travel date, time, or city. Orbitz's policy, for example, states, “Itinerary changes, if permitted for the fare, will have a $30 service fee charged by Orbitz. Additional airline charges may apply.”
Most airlines display the same flight prices as the aggregators anyway, so it’s usually better to just book directly through the airline’s website.
4. PAY IN ADVANCE.
With some airlines, the longer you wait to pay a fee, the more that fee will cost you. For example, Spirit Airlines charges a carry-on fee that ranges from $25-$100, depending on when you pay it. If you know you will need to check a bag and can pay at booking, you’ll get the best deal; if you wait until the day of your flight, you’ll get the worst.
Similarly, if your flight offers wireless internet, you can pay significantly less if you pony up in advance. For example, Delta’s Wi-Fi service offers an all-day pass for $16 if you pay before your flight. That same pass, in-air, can cost up to $50. You may also be able to find coupons to cut the cost of Wi-Fi: RetailMeNot lists ongoing promos and vouchers for Gogo, the Wi-Fi service many airlines use.
Another tip: If you’re a T-Mobile customer, you can get an hour’s worth of in-flight Wi-Fi for free.