It’s easy – well, easier – to book a cheap airline flight if you only care about price. It cuts out other variables that further confuse the issue, such as “Who can pick me up at the airport at 1 a.m.?” and “Do I want to change planes in Chicago?” However, a cheap flight can quickly become expensive if you don’t consider all the optional “service fees” offered by each airline.
Here’s the bottom line: If you book an airline flight, you can get to a final destination without paying an additional penny providing you take only one small bag and a personal item onboard the plane, sit where they tell you, entertain yourself, and eat your own food. If you want anything that makes your trip slightly more convenient, expect to pay for it.
Within the U.S., Southwest Airlines charges the least amount of extra fees; however, Southwest’s published rates also tend to be higher than other airlines. That’s not a Southwest criticism; the airline gets points for pricing honestly and not charging extra fees. Still, if you plan a stripped-down, cheap-as-I-can-get-it trip and are willing to forego services, another airline will probably be less expensive. If taking a family of four to Disney World and toting lots of luggage, maybe – maybe not.
What to do
Each case is different. Variables unrelated to price – like a fearful spouses’ ultimatum that she’ll only fly nonstop – add a new wrinkle not addressed here.
• Be realistic about paying fees. A family with small children might need to book seat assignments the same day they make a reservation to make sure little Susie isn’t sitting by herself alongside a man with an “I hate rug rats” tattoo. If so, that’s $6 per person on Air Tran, or an additional $48 roundtrip for a family of four.
• Airlines charge fees during the booking process and on the flight. A “preferred seat” in a better location is only $6? Okay. One checked bag $25? Okay. A pillow and blanket $8? Okay. Travel stress leads many vacationers to say, “What the hell.” But little fees add up.
• Decide what you need before looking for flights and factor that into a decision.
Some (not all) airlines charge a fee for the following services. If an airline offers that service for free (generally Southwest) it starts off as $0. If any or all airlines charge a fee, the average price is listed first followed by the maximum price. And all fees are, of course, true only as I pen this copy. Expect changes.
- Booking a ticket by phone rather than online: $0 – $10 – $25
- Ticket change fee: $0 – $75 – $150 (This is the fee for changing the ticket only. It does not include the price of the new ticket. Example: If you need to void a flight and book another one that leaves two days later, you’ll pay the going rate (at that very second) for the two-day-later flight. And then you’ll pay the change fee on top of that. If two-day-later flight is $100 higher than the one you’re cancelling and the change fee is $75, you’ll shell out $175.
- Reserving a seat assignment at the same time you book the ticket: $0 – $6
- Upgraded seats (bigger, etc.): Varies from a few dollars for a seat closer the front to first-class or business-class upgrades.
- Standby:$0 – $40 – $100 (This generally assumes a different flight on the same day as your reservation, but each airline follows different rules.)
- Pets: $50 – $125
- First checked bag: $0 – $15 – $25
- Second checked bag: $0 – $20 – $35
- Third checked bag: $50 – $150
- Overweight luggage: $50 – $100 (over 50 or 70-ish pounds, depending on airline, with even higher charges over, say, 100 pounds)
- Oversized luggage: $50 – $150
- Meals: $0 to $6 to $10
- Movies, etc.: $0 to $10
- Pillows/blankets: $0 (most) to $8
- Unaccompanied minor: $50 to $100
- Wi-Fi: $6 to $10
- Restrooms: No fees yet but there have been rumors
Smartertravel.com offers a comparison chart of U.S. airline fees in PDF format that it updates periodically. Click here for the U.S. version.