How to Avoid Sneaky Airline Fees

Last Friday I arrived home from New York City after a week of Broadway, museums, twinkling holiday lights, and more cannoli than any one person should consume. (Thankfully, I spent plenty of time walking them off!) Visiting the city in December was on my life list of things I wanted to do, and it didn't disappoint.

Of course, New York City isn't inexpensive. But my husband and I stayed with a friend, which meant we didn't have to pay for a hotel room, and we lucked into a few deals. For example, our friend used his corporate discount to get reduced-price tickets to The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and we scored $25 tickets for front-row seats to Wicked through a lottery drawing held two hours before the show. I'd also prepared myself to expect higher prices so that I could relax a little and enjoy the first big vacation we've taken in almost three years. I can say in all honesty that every expense was worth it — especially the cannoli.

But want to know what travel expenses are not worth it? The new fees airlines charge for everything imaginable! Need to check two bags? That'll be $60. Want a pillow? That's $7, and we only take credit cards.

Luckily, we avoided paying these fees because we have the incredible willpower it takes to pass on airplane food — delicious as it is — and we only packed one carry-on each. But while writing this article, I learned that if we had been on Spirit Airlines, we would have paid $60 extra for two carry-on bags. And I learned that not all of these new fees are disclosed upfront.

Sneaky fees or a buffet of services?
Airlines say the extra fees keep overall ticket prices low, allowing passengers to only pay for the services they want. But some of these fees pop up at the end of a transaction or while a passenger is checking in luggage, making it feel less like a “menu of services” and more like a mob-style shakedown — an offer you can't refuse. If you want to catch your flight, that is.

One group working to require fee transparency is Mad as Hell About Hidden Fees (MAH). An initiative of the American Society of Travel Agents, Business Travel Coalition, and Consumer Travel Alliance, MAH started a petition urging the Department of Transportation to “require airlines to make their fees fully and easily accessible to both consumers and intermediaries in the travel industry.”

In a press release, Paul Ruden, Senior Vice President of Legal and Industry Affairs for the American Society of Travel Agents, said:

This issue is not about fees, but about fairness. Although more than half of all airline tickets are booked through traditional or online travel agencies, the airlines have chosen to hide their fees from the systems that power those bookings. Airlines should be able to make a fair profit and set fares and fees that allow them to do so, as long as travelers can see and compare all of those fees in advance.

According to an online survey, two-thirds of travelers have been surprised by add-on fees after arriving at the airport. Another study showed that hidden fees can increase the original ticket price for a typical traveler with a single bag 10% to 82%, or 21% to 153% for a traveler with two bags.

Not all fees are disclosed online
Okay, I thought, why not just look up the fees before you book? Turns out it's difficult, if not impossible, to find all of the fees on an airline's website. Consumer Travel Alliance put together a video of their attempt to find add-on fee amounts on seven different airline websites:

 

Be aware of “gotcha” fees
Unfortunately, it's not always possible to get around the extra fees, but being aware of some of the common ones can help. The following are surprising add-ons to note and avoid:

    • Booking by phone or in person. Most airlines charge extra when customers don't book online. US Airways, for example, charges $25 to book a domestic flight on the phone and $35 to book in person.

 

    • Credit card “convenience” fee. Think paying online is the way to go, then? Not on Allegiant Air. The airline adds a $14 surcharge to tickets booked through its website, but waives the fee if you buy in person at one of its ticket offices.

 

    • Carry-on fee. As mentioned earlier, Spirit charges for carry-ons (anything smaller than 16″ x 14″ x 12″). Downsize, or choose another airline. So far, others haven't added this fee.

 

    • Unaccompanied minor fee. This isn't a surprise fee, but the amount can be a shock considering that the flight attendant does little more than escort the child to and from the gates. Two unaccompanied minors flying round trip with JetBlue, for example, adds $300 to the base fare.

 

    • Ticket change. Southwest is the only airline that doesn't charge you extra to change your itinerary, all others will charge anywhere from $50 to a whopping $300 (international flight on Continental).

 

  • Baggage fees. These are easier to locate on an airline's website than many of the other fees, so be sure to look them up before you pack. Most airlines charge $15-$25 for the first checked bag. If you try to stuff everything into a carry-on and your bag is just one pound overweight, you'll probably pay even more: starting at $25 (Hawaiian Airlines) and up to $200 (US Airways). Weigh your carry-on after packing and before heading to the airport, and be sure pack lighter if you plan to bring home souvenirs.

Earlier this year the Department of Transportation announced that it was proposing regulations to protect air travelers against hidden charges, and was accepting public comment through September 23, the date MAH declared as Mad As Hell Day! and submitted its petition. Maybe the day will come when all fees are clearly listed on airline websites, but until then, check out sites like Airfarewatchdog and Expedia for airline fee charts, as well as SmarterTravel.com's Ultimate Guide to airline fees.

Have you ever been charged a “gotcha” fee by an airline? Share your stories and advice in the comments!

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Trevor
Trevor
9 years ago

Think about courier services I just checked the Baggage fees for EasyJet flight from Lisbon to London, an extra 6kgs over the 20Kg limit will cost £84. DHL will deliver a small package weighing 6Kg door to door for £64. The bigger the package and the more it weighs the better the cost savings. However, apparently DHLs list of things it can’t transport include Alcohol (or any liquids apparently) which will stop the most common heavy souvenir from a foriegn holiday being sent home. Even with the stupidly long list of items that couriers prohibit, it might well be worth… Read more »

retirebyforty
retirebyforty
9 years ago

Usually, we travel very light with just one carry on. The last time I’ve had to pay a fee is when I had to change date. It was $25 and I thought it was a fair price to charge. From your list above, the credit card fee is really bogus though. We’re staying home on Christmas this year so we don’t have to worry about the extra fee. 🙂

louisa @ TheReallyGoodLife
louisa @ TheReallyGoodLife
9 years ago

In the UK it’s the “budget” airlines that are the worst for this – you have to pay for every little thing separately. If you want to pay on a credit card (which gives you better payment protection), check-in in person and take a suitcase, you have to pay a premium – and since all the tickets are sold as singles, you have to pay those extras for each leg of your journey. They also have far fewer staff so you have to stand in long queues for everything. Unless you get one of the “flights for a penny” bargains… Read more »

LifeAndMyFinances
LifeAndMyFinances
9 years ago

Yeah, my wife and I used to fly with Spirit Airlines all the time, but then all the sneaky fees started!

Now we fly through Allegiant Air. They always seem to have a cheap direct flight to our hometown! 🙂

Kate
Kate
9 years ago

Air Canada has earned a special sense of wrath with me with their 400$ fuel surcharge on international flights. They even put it on rewards flights.

Last I checked, you need fuel to keep the plane in the air. It is not optional!

In the US, I have found http://Beta.TruPrice.net/ to be useful. It helps you calculate all the different fees for the different airlines and get a better – not perfect, but better- sense of what your flight will cost you.

cc
cc
9 years ago

you got reduced tix to the met?… you know it’s pay-as-you-wish?

SF_UK
SF_UK
9 years ago

There’s a saying in my office: “Friends don’t let friends fly Ryanair”, because of their hidden fees and poor customer service (at one point, they hit the headlines for suggesting that they might charge to use the on-board toilets!) Going to a conference in Dublin last year, some of my collaborators were booked Ryanair by their admin assistant. But she didn’t book them in online, or tell them to. They arrived at the airport and were stung with a £60 charge, each, to book in. In cash. Cue frantic dash around terminal to find a cash machine. Flying on a… Read more »

dotCOMreport
dotCOMreport
9 years ago

Hidden fees are a huge pain and most travellers have experienced it. Thanks for this post.

smirktastic
smirktastic
9 years ago

What’s worse than being nickel-and-dimed is the fact that so many of the airlines have cut hours, wages and pensions for their staff. So they charge us more, pay their staff less and yet they still are in financial trouble? (Or so they sob.) Sounds like a poor business model to me.

Lydia
Lydia
9 years ago

What I don’t understand is how airlines can charge for someone to bring on a carry-on bag. How does that make any sense?

Kris
Kris
9 years ago

Sorry but I take offense to your complaint about the unaccompanied minor fee. I’m a flight attendant and let me enlighten you as to how I do more than merely “escorting your child to the gate” (which is actually the gate agent’s job at my airline). My airline recently changed the minimum age for this service but previously we DID have 6 year olds travelling on their own. Who cut their food for them? I did. Who calmed them down when they started crying because they missed Mommy/Daddy/Grandma? I did (a stranger in a uniform is more comforting than a… Read more »

JakeIL7
JakeIL7
9 years ago

I travel a lot for business. When you change your ticket, be aware it is the change fee PLUS the “difference in ticket price” which means changing your ticket within a week of the flight can cost you north of $500 easily. Even Southwest charges this “change fee” – you have to upgrade your ticket to a flexible fare if you want to change on short notice (like the return leg of your flight). The worst fee (in the US, European fees are simply nuts)? US Airways (surprise, surprise) tried to charge me a $50 “convenience” fee because the first… Read more »

JakeIL7
JakeIL7
9 years ago

@smirktastic: Part of this is our problem. When we actually start paying for decent service and on-time performance this will change. But as long as we go with whatever is the least expensive flight on Orbitz/Travelocity/Expedia the nickel and dimeing will continue.

Kathy F
Kathy F
9 years ago

I encountered a sneaky $6 seating fee when choosing my seat online with AirTran. It was $6 for each leg of the trip. No advance warning about this.

Jennifer B
Jennifer B
9 years ago

Here’s a sneaky one for you – Flying on a code share flight this year, I checked in with Alaska airlines for my Delta flight to San Juan Puerto Rico. No charge for bags. The Atlanta-San Juan portion of my ticket is being handled by Delta. Checking in at San Juan airport for my return flight I get charged for my bags by the Delta people. So they carried my bags _to_ San Juan at no charge because the lady at the Alaska Airlines desk didn’t charge me, but they make me pay to take the exact same bags (still… Read more »

Matt
Matt
9 years ago

Over two years ago I created my own site which outlines over 20 different fees for all of the major U.S. airlines as well as a few international carriers. It can be reached by clicking my name. It’s free, and allows users to determine fees based on route as well as airline. Hope it’s a help to the traveling public.

J.D.’s edit: Matt’s site is luggageallowance.net.

tom
tom
9 years ago

How to avoid sneaky airline fees?

Just fly Southwest!

Levy
Levy
9 years ago

PhilippineAirlines have free allowance baggage with set dimensions and weight. I will be travelling soon and contemplating on bringing a check-in baggage.

Steve
Steve
9 years ago

The other problem is that they are constantly changing the fees (usually raising them.) So it’s not just “airline X charges $Y for a checked bag.” Instead it’s “arline X charges $y for a checked bag if you bought your ticket before may 1st; $z if you bought after may 1st; add $3 if you don’t prepay the baggage fee online before you head to the airport.” I don’t mind services going a la carte per se. The problems are the complexity and the lack of clarity. Also, charging for checked bags but not carryons encourages bad behavior (trying to… Read more »

Stephanie
Stephanie
9 years ago

I live in New York City and the most expensive aspect of the city is definitely hotel accommodations. The Metropolitan Museum of Art is actually not expensive. The listed price is a suggested price. You can pay $1 if you choose to. The whole policy is to encourage the public to become a patron of the arts, regardless of financial capability. I completely agree with the sneaky airline charges. I know it’s a competitive business, but it really leaves much to be desired when you figured out you were essentially “tricked” into paying more. Why can’t we be a little… Read more »

simokc
simokc
9 years ago

Excellent post! I hope someone follows it up with a post about the hidden charges of car rental agencies, and how to avoid them. This is something I have found to be even more challenging than the airline hidden fees.

JakeIL7
JakeIL7
9 years ago

@simokc: Good luck on those. MOST of the rental car fees are actually taxes (from the airport, city, state, and whatever agency can pile on) and you pay them no matter what rental car agency you use. Best way to avoid them is to: 1) switch airports or 2) rent from a non airport location (such as your hotel)

sora
sora
9 years ago

well, we pay so little for airline fares now, compared to a long time ago. how are the airlines supposed to make any money? i recently chose to pay $1050 for an international flight, instead of $1500 for the same itinerary on a different airline. I knew full well that #2 had way better amenities & newer planes than #1. But I chose on price. I am not sure there is any cause to be indignant about these charges, really.

Jeanette
Jeanette
9 years ago

When I flew out to Columbia, SC to see my husband graduate from Basic Training he asked me to bring home with me three plaques he got for his graduation. When I fly, I travel light, trying to get all my clothing and necessities into carry on and personal items. When it all fit into my bag I was so pleased that I was going to be able to carry it on and not check anything:it was under the size requirements.
BUT… it was over weight. I had to check it after all.

Frugal Texas Gal
Frugal Texas Gal
9 years ago

Im going to agree with some other posters. the overseas discount airlines are the wors, and ryan air takes the cake. Our experience from europe was that unless the Ryan air flight was literslly a few cents, we were often better doing an air Berlin or some other flight….and of course I dont know about Spirit, but Ryanair’s airports are further out significantly and require longer commute time or train fees. When you live within fifteen minutes of frankfurt Airpot and have to dirve an hour to get to Hahn airport to take Ryanair……..

Mika
Mika
9 years ago

The Metropolitan Museum’s fees are “Recommended” — any museum that has “recommended” ticket prices is actually “pay as you wish.” I have a millionaire friend who gives a penny whenever he feels like taking a stroll inside the Met (he has been known to send sizable checks to the Met, too, but the act of giving a penny is to prove that it really is affordable for all) . Also, many museums in NYC have free days (the MoMA has free Fridays, ICP Museum, too).

Allison
Allison
9 years ago

Three weeks ago Slate Magazine also had an article about sneaky airline fees: http://www.slate.com/id/2275728/
Also a good read!

One of the best tips I ever got about packing light is from my mom. She said, “Remember, if you forget anything you can always just buy it!” So rather than packing different options for every situation, I try to pack fewer items that can be used for many situations. One carry-on only. These days, doing a load of laundry or buying an extra shirt while traveling is probably always cheaper than a baggage fee.

Lindsay
Lindsay
9 years ago

I’m traveling abroad this holiday season and have a couple bits of money advice to share: Before you buy those really cheap plane tickets, make sure you don’t have a layover in London between two different airports. I had no idea this was even done, so all the money I saved on cheap tickets we will now spend on a cab because we have a very short layover and no time to take public transport between London airports. Maybe this has been mentioned here before, but: Get a credit card with no foreign transaction fees. You can just google it,… Read more »

Kat
Kat
9 years ago

You don’t need a “corporate discount” to go to the Met cheaply–seriously what kind of scam benefit is that, to offer a discount on something that is pretty much already free? Just pay them whatever you want, even if it is $1. I did that a few times when I was a student and needed to go to the Met multiple times for some projects — just hand them the dollar and ask for admission for the day and they will give you the little tag to wear (that will also get you into the Cloisters same day) without any… Read more »

J
J
9 years ago

I agree that most airlines have a bunch of these fees, but usually these fees are listed or accessible when one buys a ticket. The problem sees to be that since it used to be bundled together, some people do not check what the current rules are and what they would need to pay for. The airline could make a note of every single fee that they charge for each ticket in bold but that could get a bit annoying for travelers who know about the various fees. Other industries probably have less accountability in their pricing like say health/dental… Read more »

stephanie
stephanie
9 years ago

I fly 6+ times per year and never have this “hidden fee” problem. I almost always order tickets from Cheap Tickets or a similar site, and there is always a warning that checking baggage may cost extra. I’ve been on a variety of airlines and never had a problem with fees sneaking up on me – the only item that “costs extra” that I might want is the checked bag, and I’ve known for years that some airlines charge for that. I agree that paying for carry-ons is a little extreme, but I’ve never heard of another airline who charges… Read more »

Lin Ennis
Lin Ennis
9 years ago

We were surprised by a $100 gotcha when we dropped our 14 year old nephew at the Phoenix airport for a return trip to Los Angeles. The sky cap asked for his ticket and his ID. Being between the 8th and 9th grades, he didn’t have a school ID, so the sky cap asked his age, then took us to a different line. Turns out, because of his size, he wasn’t questioned on the way here. We had to… 1) pay the $100 2) get one of his parents on the phone (while we stood at the ticket desk) and… Read more »

Jason
Jason
9 years ago

I try to use frequent flyer awards strategically to avoid change fees. UA and AA will allow unlimited flight schedule changes as long as the new flights are between the same origin and destination and within a set time of the original ticket (IIRC, one year). I purchase tickets when my travel dates are firm and use miles for awards when there’s a chance my travel dates may change. It allows me to book early enough in advance there’s still capacity in the saver award classes that require fewer miles.

BD
BD
9 years ago

I fly Southwest almost exclusively. There are no “sneaky” fees. Check 2 bags for free. Carryons are free. Ticket prices are low. You can choose any seat you want on the plane for no extra charge. I love the fact you get to seat yourself. Southwest is almost never late, and I’d guess that about 80% of the times I’ve flown with them, they’re EARLY. There is a small optional “early bird” service that they offer for $10 extra each way, and for that price you get checked in automatically, and you get first selection of the general seats (business… Read more »

Ryan Waggoner
Ryan Waggoner
9 years ago

Another way to avoid fees is to get upgraded status through a miles card. I know it’s probably anathema to many readers of this site, but rewards card can be a great deal if you have to spend a lot of money anyway every month, like for a small business.

Chelsea Rae
Chelsea Rae
9 years ago

I know everyone gives Spirit Airlines a hard time but in a few cases they are by far the better option. True Spirit charges for carry on but they charge the same cost for checked luggage (they say the cost is to encourage people to check luggage). Plus, check out the ridiculously low priced flights they have – I’m going to Cartagena, Colombia for New Years and a one way flight on Spirit was $120 with the cost of a checked bag. The next cheapest flight on another airline… $451! One way!

Zach
Zach
9 years ago

Hope you enjoyed my city. I saw Wicked in London though, not here in NYC, but it’s still quite amazing. I too picked up same day half off tickets. Also the MET is basically free. You didn’t need to get reduced price tickets. They advertise suggested ticket prices, but you can actually pay whatever you’re capable of paying. I took my mom when she visited, and paid 5 bucks for the two of us. Same goes for Musuem of Natural History. MOMA is free on Friday’s from 6-10pm. As for Airlines, I have been really fortunate to avoid the fee’s.… Read more »

Glen
Glen
9 years ago

If I can, I fly Southwest. Besides relatively low fares and no sneaky fees, I get great customer service and almost always an on-time arrival. I’ve experienced awful service at almost every other airline. The worst has to have been Delta: I tore 2 ligaments in my knee skiing in CO (on crutches with a very visible brace around my knee) and had to fly back from Denver via Atlanta to Raleigh; not only did they NOT allow me to board early when I asked (some very nice people in my boarding group helped me and waited patiently as I… Read more »

Doug D
Doug D
9 years ago

I used to race bikes and had to bring bikes to races. Some airlines would charge up to $75 per leg to get the bikes to the races. One race, I spent $450 just to get my bikes to the race. Most times, if you completely disassemble the bike, you can just have bike parts in your luggage. Bike parts don’t have an arbitrary extra fee.

Elizabeth
Elizabeth
9 years ago

@#33 Sorry but 14 is 14. You basically lucked out the first time but that child (yes child) should have been considered an unaccompanied minor. I fly a lot, over 100k miles in the last 6 months and while I hope never to be in any sort of air emergency, the fact is they happen. A 14 y/o child would almost certainly need extra help even if he’s taller and heavier than most kids his age. Size != maturity or the ability to stay calm in a crisis. Of course that’s true for adults as well but at least we… Read more »

KAD
KAD
9 years ago

BD (#35) said:
(Retail stores should follow the Airline’s lead and charge parents an “unattended child fee” as well, to compensate for all those irresponsible parents that just let their kids run wild, and expect the store employees to watch them.)

This reminded me of a sign I saw several months ago in a local coffee place: “Unattended children will be given espresso and a free kitten.”

T
T
9 years ago

@Kathy F, #14–I hate the AirTran seat fees as well. You don’t have to pay them, but then you’re stuck with whatever seats are left, and if you’re a family traveling, chances are you would be spread out throughout the plane.

Janette
Janette
9 years ago

You know those cute wire racks to measure your roll on luggage. American now uses them. If your luggage is too WIDE they will ask you to unload- BUT you still can have only one bag. IF you cannot fit it- you will be charged to check it. My son carries a duffel. He won’t be able to carry it anymore. It makes sense to me- but is an awakening to people AT THE GATE. I am sorry you chose the cheaper flight Sora. You know service is above everything on a plane (not). The airlines are shorting their own… Read more »

squished18
squished18
9 years ago

I recently found that Kayak seems to have a fairly comprehensive list of airline fees.

Mike C.
Mike C.
9 years ago

Thanks, good article

doc
doc
9 years ago

Isn’t the MET in NYC a “suggested” price’?

I always pay 2 bucks.

Samantha
Samantha
9 years ago

Just a note that Southwest has AMAZING customer service. I called one afternoon to ask about the children’s ticket policy. I put the phone on speaker, brought up some websites to read while I waited… and they answered after 3 rings. And the woman who answered, is the woman who helped me, no transfers. That is AWESOME. I just wish Southwest flew into my new airport, sadly they do not.

Roo
Roo
9 years ago

This is why America needs high speed rail- no stupid invasive TSA checks (hard to hijack a train and fly it into a building), in theory less hidden fees.

Michelle
Michelle
9 years ago

Just want to implore people that when you patronize the arts, please actually pay what you can, not as little as you can get away with. They need your support.

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