How Airlines Are Racking Up the Fees

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Illustration by NEWSWEEK

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The original and, arguably the worst: if you can’t stuff everything you need into that carry-on, you’re going to be paying up. Not long after they began charging for a third bag (initially about $40), major carriers began charging for a second, and then for the first bag. Most major carriers—Delta, US Airways, American, and Continental—charge $25 for a first bag and $35 for a second, with all but American offering two bucks off if you check the bags online, rather than waiting until the airport. You’ll save some cash if you catch a budget carrier: AirTran charges $20 and $25, and Spirit charges $25 for both (although the cost will soon rise), while JetBlue charges only for a second bag. Your best bet, though, is to fly Southwest, where your bags fly free.

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No, you didn’t misread that. Although it’s more lenient about checked bags than the big boys, and its tickets tend to cost less, the ultrabudget Spirit Airlines is pioneering new fees. Passengers still get one free personal item—the purse, backpack, or briefcase that fits under a seat—but for larger carry-ons, they now have to pony up anywhere from $20 (for members) to $30 (for nonmembers who call ahead or check their baggage via the Web) to $45 (for those who wait until they get to the gate). With an increasing number of passengers responding to checked-bag fees by shoving all they can into carry-ons, it might not be long before the majors engage in the sincerest form of flattery.

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In some industries, companies are pleased to get your business. In the airline industry, they charge you for the honor of doing business with them. Take US Airways, for example: if you wish to book a flight in person or on the phone, you’ll pay $25 to $35 for domestic flights. That’s a bit steeper than the average, but many carriers charge at least $15 unless you book online. In contrast, most online booking services—including Priceline, Orbitz, and Expedia—have gone the opposite direction, adopting no-fee policies where they once charged. Southwest won’t make you pay up either.

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Accidentally bought the wrong ticket? Need to push back vacation a day to get some last-minute work done? Better pull out that credit card. Delta and US Airways will charge $150 to alter your domestic itinerary. Fees vary at Continental and American. AirTran offers a slightly more salubrious $75 fee. Southwest, however, comes out on top once again: tickets are transferable at no cost for one year.

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Animals are expensive. Traveling with them is even worse. Assuming your pooch or cat can fit in a carry-on-size case, the major carriers will charge you about $125 for the pet to travel. JetBlue, Spirit, and US Airways charge $100, while Southwest charges $65. But AirTran wins this round, with the low, low price of $69 for pet travel. Of course, that all assumes your pet is the right size—and some airlines ban certain breeds, especially short-nose dogs. If you’re not sure whether to bring doggy along, we recommend that you Fidon’t.

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It’s a thriving minisector within airlines: nickel-and-diming passengers for inches and feet. Continental will give you extra legroom—at least seven inches—for various prices. US Airways won’t give you any extra space, but it will take an amount starting at $5 and up, based on the duration of the flight and destination to allow you to sit near the front of the plane so you can board and deplane first (it cutely calls these “Choice Seats”). AirTran offers a similar deal—earlier boarding, but no extra legroom—starting at $10. JetBlue lets you sit in roomier seats in the front of the cabin or in exit rows for a fee, too. And with the mania for priority heating up, there are even deals that let you jump the line for check-in and security in addition to boarding—a trend that Wall Street Journal aviation columnist Scott McCartney recently decried as “a new low” for fees. Ireland’s Ryanair is pushing the boundaries further, though: its CEO says the carrier is considering charging passengers just to sit. No kidding. Check out the link.

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It’s true that airline food was for many years a standing joke, but as the old standard says, you don’t miss your water until your well runs dry. In the case of US Airways, that was literal: the carrier started charging its passengers just to get water (and other soft drinks) in August 2008, only to reverse the fee seven months later in the face of bad press. But almost every airline charges $5 or $6 for alcohol, and many offer snacks, sandwiches, or other tidbits for $5 to $10. Increasingly, you can get them only with credit cards—no cash is accepted. Best in show in this category is Horizon Air, which serves the Pacific Northwest—and offers local microbrews to passengers 21 and older for free.

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With all these fees, maybe you think the best option is to enjoy a relaxing “staycation” and send Junior off to camp or the grandparents. But that’ll cost you, too. While in the past airlines may have happily escorted children traveling alone, it’s now a costly affair on top of the ticket. AirTran and Southwest will charge $49 and $50, respectively, while the majors charge about $100.

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By now you’ve got a headache just thinking about all the extra money you’re going to spend. Maybe a nice nap would help you forget it all? It depends who you’re flying with. If you’ve chosen to fly with JetBlue, US Airways, or American, you’ll have to pay $7 or $8 to get a pillow and blanket.

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Air travel has never been free, of course. But at one time, you could avoid some of the cost with frequent-flier miles. Those days, however, are over: now you’ll get hit with a fee just for using the miles you’ve accumulated. US Airways will sock you with a $30 service fee when you buy a domestic ticket using your miles. Fees at Continental vary widely. Look, it’s not pretty, but at least you’re not being forced to pay to use the restroom in the air. Yet.

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