Unexpected Airline Fees: How Families Can Avoid Excessive Charges

If you travel even only occasionally these days, you are probably already aware that most airlines now charge fees for checked bags.  And perhaps you’ve already heard about the increase in airline change fees the past few months.  Both of these are fees that can really disproportionately affect families, since families have so many more people traveling together.

But there are other fees out there that some airlines charge that may take you by surprise on your next family trip.  And since families often have very particular needs when traveling with kids, they often get hit very hard by these charges.  Here’s a list of some less common fees that could drive the cost of your airline ticket up.  Be prepared and avoid them at all costs!

Carryon Bags

Small bag, big carryon cost.

Small bag, big carryon cost.

The major domestic airlines still do not charge for passengers to bring carry-luggage, but some of the ultra-low cost carriers are going this route.  Frontier recently announced it would begin charging for carry-ons in the overhead bin for passengers who do not book on frontier.com (the space underneath your seat is still free).  Fees can run as high as $100.

Spirit Airlines has been charging for carryons larger than a purse or briefcase for quite some time.  Fees range from $35-$50, depending on when you pay for the item.  Check Spirit’s website for precise baggage rates and dimension rules.

Another low cost-carrier, Allegiant, also charges for a carry-on bag of up to 25 pounds (one personal item of smaller dimensions is still free).  Fees for a carry-on are up to $30 (depending on trip length) if booked in advance, and $35 if booked at the airport.

Seat Assignment Fees

Airlines have been charging for premium seats for many years (United’s Economy Plus and Delta’s Economy Comfort being prime examples), but some airlines charge you just for the privilege of having an advance seat assignment of any kind.  If you want to guarantee that you and your child can sit together, you may have to pony up some extra cash when you book.


  • AirTran charges a variable fee for advance seat assignments on discount or sale fares.
  • Frontier doesn’t assign seats until check-in if you are traveling on a “Basic” ticket (i.e., tickets booked through a travel agent and not on FlyFrontier.com), so you will need to pay a fee of $5 and up to purchase “SELECT” or “STRETCH” seating if you want a seat assignment earlier than that.

More insidious than the discount carrier fees, however, are the ways in which the majors try to force you into buying premium seats in order to secure seats with your child.  More and more airlines are blocking off even the regular window and aisle seats, leaving only scattered middle seats available for pre-assignment.  Many families who want to get a row together instead opt to purchase premium seats in order to guarantee that everyone can sit together, even though the plane – in reality – may be almost totally empty when they are booking and examining seat maps.

There’s no right way to handle this dilemma, but see my posts on my own personal experience with American and Delta.  I try to get at least two seats together (usually near the back of the plane where there may be some availability) and keep monitoring my reservations for switches.  Sometimes calling and finding a sympathetic agent will help!  And always be sure to check in at exactly 24 hours before your flight.  This is when some elite upgrades will clear, opening up some extra seats in the economy cabin that you may be able to snag.

Phone Booking Fees

This fee has been in place for many years, but it still takes infrequent travelers by surprise.  If you want to book a ticket over the phone with a call center agent, most major airlines will charge you $25 for that privilege.  You can easily avoid this fee by booking online at the airline’s website.  If a ticket simply cannot be booked online due to technical limitations of the airline’s website, ask the call center agent to wait the phone fee.

Lap Child Fees (for International Tickets)

Infants in laps can be costly for international travel.

Infants in laps can be costly for international travel.

Many parents enjoy traveling during the first two years of their child’s life because infants under age 2 can travel on their parents’ laps at no charge on all domestic flights.  But if you book your next vacation to an international destination, you may be taken by surprise as lap infants have to pay a fee for travel (often 10% of a regular fare).

If you redeem award miles for a business or first class ticket to secure extra space for you and your infant, you may be in for an especially unpleasant surprise — you could perhaps be charged 10% of the FULL cost of that business/first class seat for the privilege of taking your child along.  Since many of these seats retail for thousands and thousands of dollars, you could easily be hit with a three, or even four, figure bill.

There are major differences in the airlines, so plan carefully.  The Points Guy has published a great chart that may help you in distinguishing between all the fees for lap infants on various international flights.

Priority Boarding

Elites have long gotten priority boarding privileges, and for many years, families with small children could count on pre-boarding to have a little extra time to get their children and all their gear settled.  No longer on most carriers.  If pre-boarding really matters to you, you may have to pay for the privilege.  Here are a few of the options out there.

American offers different kinds of fares at difference price points, some of which give you access to pre-boarding.  For example, “Choice Essential” fares include Group 1 boarding privileges (as well as a free checked bag and no change fees) for $68 roundtrip.  American also offers Group 1 boarding as an option that can be purchased a la carte, but details and pricing are sketchy.

Southwest charges $12.50 each way for passengers who want “Early Bird Check-In.”  Depending on how many other passengers select this option, it usually enables you to get a boarding position near the end of the A boarding group, which enables you to get on board early and secure a good seat and space for your carryon luggage.  But there is really no need to pay this fee if you are traveling with kids 5 and under.  Southwest will let you board between Groups A & B, which works just right to secure a full row of three seats across (albeit in the back of the plane).

Close-In Award Booking Fees

Been saving those frequent flyer miles for a rainy day?  Often travelers find that they want to cash them in for a last minute vacation or even for a family emergency — like an illness or a funeral.  Booking last minute, however, can come with costs.

American, for example, charges $75 for AAdvantage award tickets issued less than 21 days before travel (fee is waived for Gold, Platinum, and Executive Platinum members).

United also charges regular Mileage Plus members $75 for award tickets booked less than 21 days before travel (elites holding Silver status pay $50, Gold members pay $25, and higher elites pay no fees).

Luckily, Delta does not charge these close-in award booking fees (although one might argue that Delta SkyMiles are an otherwise less valuable currency!”)

Are there other airline fees out there that have taken you by surprise?  Please share your thoughts in the comments.


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