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’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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