Avoid Sneaky Airline Fees

This summer is proving to be the busiest travel season. According to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), agents screened more passengers and crews during the weeks of June 18 and June 25 than ever before. With more and more people traveling, it’s important to plan accordingly for your trip in order to avoid unnecessary fees.

Airlines have gotten more creative at tacking on charges for perks that were once free — like choosing your seat. Fees vary by airline. Ultra low-fare airlines, for instance, are more likely to charge additional fees to make up for the cost of those discounted tickets.

“They charge for everything,” says Rick Seaney, CEO and cofounder of FareCompare.com. “The ticket price is ridiculously low. And if you fly naked and don’t eat, you’re in good shape.”

You don’t have to go that far to avoid add-ons. Here are some common fees on domestic flights and ways you can bypass them — or at least lessen their impact.

Checked bags

Many airlines charge to check luggage, often starting at $25 for the first bag and quickly escalating. For instance, the fee for three or more bags on United, American and Delta can range from $150 to $200 each.

What to do: If packing light isn’t possible, your baggage fees may be waived if you buy the ticket using the airline’s branded credit card. Or fly Southwest Airlines, which doesn’t charge for the first two checked bags. And when flying ultralow-fare airlines Spirit or Allegiant, baggage fees will be lower if you pay them at the time of booking rather than later at the airport. Some travelers also avoid this fee by checking a bag at the gate, which is often — but not always — free, Seaney says.

Big bags

You’ll pay extra for oversized or overweight luggage. You might even owe two fees on United and JetBlue if your bag is too big and too heavy. Oversized fees often run $75 to $200. Overweight bags cost $75 to $100, but can climb to $200 for each bag over 70 pounds on American, United and Delta.

What to do: Make sure your bag isn’t bigger than the 62 inches allowed by many airlines, and weigh luggage before going to the airport to stay within the 50-pound limit. Or, mail your luggage ahead of time to your destination. Shipping a 51-pound bag from Chicago to New York via FedEx costs as little as $41.

Change tickets

Most airlines charge extra to switch a nonrefundable ticket. Delta, United and American slap travelers with the steepest fee — $200 to change a domestic flight days before departure.

Cancellation

You’ll pay similar fees to cancel a flight as you would to change it.

– What to do:

If you must cancel, do so early. Federal regulations require airlines operating in the United States to refund your money if you cancel a reservation within the first 24 hours — provided you booked seven or more days before the flight.

Seat selection

Not all seats are created equal, and many airlines charge for extra leg room or to sit by a window or aisle, says Jami Counter, with SeatGuru, a website that provides info on seats and flight entertainment. Seat fees range from $15 to $150 on domestic flights, depending on distance and demand, he says. Spirit Airlines also offers spacious “Big Front” seats for $12 to $199 if you pay in advance.

What to do:

For some lanky travelers on long trips or families wishing to sit together, selecting seats in advance may be worth the extra money. Some airlines will waive or discount fees for frequent fliers. Or, let the airline assign you a seat for free — usually in the back or middle — and then 24 hours or less before departure, check to see if a desirable seat has opened up that you can now grab without paying extra, Counter says. (Starting next year, airlines must seat children under age 13 with their adult companion without charging a fee, says FareCompare’s Seaney.)

Priority boarding

The cost for getting on planes early — otherwise known as the cutting-in-line fee — ranges from around $4 to $30.

What to do:

The fee may be worth it for travelers wanting to get the first crack at overhead bin space or to choose an unassigned seat on Southwest before the crowd. You might be able to avoid the fee altogether by using certain airline-branded credit cards.

Carry-ons

Airlines don’t charge for one small personal item like a purse or briefcase. But go too big and take up bin space on low-cost carriers Allegiant, Spirit and Frontier and you’ll pay a carry-on fee of $15 to $100, depending on the flight. United’s new “bare bones” fare doesn’t allow passengers to use bin space, and oversized personal items will be checked for $25.

What to do:

Make sure your personal item fits under your seat.

Food and beverages

After years of no frills (meaning no meals), airlines are bringing back food — for a fee. Main cabin passengers pay $4 to $12 for a snack or sandwich. Although major carriers don’t charge for sodas, water, pretzels or other light snacks, freebies generally aren’t available on deep-discount airlines.

What to do:

You may be entitled to free meals if you’re an elite status passenger or your credit card offers this perk. Otherwise, pack a snack for the trip and drink only complimentary beverages. Be aware: Some foods, such as peanut butter, may count toward the liquids and gels you can bring through security.

The human touch

Talking to a real person often costs money. Allegiant charges $15 for this per segment (each stop on an itinerary). American assesses $25 to buy a ticket over the phone. United charges $50 for purchasing a ticket in person at the airport.

What to do:

Buy tickets online. Or fly with an airline that doesn’t charge a fee.

Boarding passes

Having the airline agent print out your boarding pass will cost $5 at Allegiant and $10 with Spirit.

What to do:

Print your boarding pass at home for free if you’re flying with an airline that charges this fee.

Wi-Fi

JetBlue offers internet access for free, but other airlines often charge $8 to $16 for a daily pass.

What to do:

Bring a book. But if you must surf the net, check with your airline before the trip. Some offer limited internet access for free, or will give you a discount if you pay in advance, Seaney says.