If you have flown recently, you have probably noticed that air travel comes with a lot of fees. Checked bag fees, award booking fees, flight change fees, seat assignment fees, fees for food and beverages, etc. The list grows ever longer.
These ancillary airline fees make the domestic carriers in the United States billions of dollars each year. Sometimes they are necessarily and even helpful, especially if unbundling of fees results in lower base fares for the consumer (that, of course, often doesn’t happen). But mostly, I don’t want to be the sucker paying them – and you probably don’t want to either!
Here are 7 common and easy strategies to help you avoid most airline fees on your next flight.
1. Book with Airlines that Don’t Charge Them
Although most major airlines are fee-crazy these days, not everyone charges for everything. Vote with your wallet by giving your business to the airlines who make things simpler.
The U.S. airline that has the fewest fees is – of course – Southwest Airlines (my personal favorite). Southwest doesn’t charge for the first two checked bags and doesn’t have any change fees if you need to change a flight. You just pay the fare difference.
2. Pack Light
The biggest money-making fee for the major airlines these days is the checked bag fee. Most airlines charge $25 per bag each way, but some of the ultra-low cost carriers prices can go much higher. The best way to beat the system is to bring a roll-aboard suitcase with you and skip the bag check process.
I know that this recommendation is not always possible with a baby or toddler who needs lots of gear. But at the very least, you should pack a light as possible and share a suitcase among multiple family members to pay fewer bag fees. And remember that car seats and strollers are free to check on all U.S. airlines so check them with impunity!
3. Use an Airline Credit Card
The easiest way to avoid a few common fees that airlines charge is to use that airline’s co-branded credit card (see my recommendations for the best travel rewards cards for families). Most of these cards include a free checked bag for you and quite a few additional companions as long as you charge your tickets to the card.
Of course, these credit cards come with annual fees. So it’s not practical or financially wise to have several airline credit cards if you can’t at least break even on the fees! Do the math to see how often you will reasonably fly certain airlines. If you live in a particular airline’s hub city (Atlanta for Delta, Charlotte or Dallas for American, Chicago for United), it is often smart to get your home airline’s credit card if you fly often simply to use only for the bag fee savings.
4. Be Loyal
Most airlines give additional benefits and reduced fees for flyers with elite status. For families who don’t fly often, elite status may not be within reach. But if one parent, for example, travels for business, it’s often possible for one member of the family to get elite status. The rest of the family can piggyback off of that when traveling together.
5. Book Early
One of my least favorite airline fees is the close-in award booking fees. What is this fee you ask? It’s a fee that many airlines simply when you want to use your frequent flyer miles to book a flight less than 21 days in advance. At $75 a ticket with airlines like United, it’s a significant devaluation of your miles. Whenever possible, book before this three week window to avoid this fee. And only pay it when you are getting a screaming good redemption in terms of mile value.
6. Always Book Flights Online
Airlines naturally want to reduce their phone customer service costs these days with so many things that can be done digitally by the customers themselves. For that reason, most major airlines now charge a fee (usually $25 per domestic ticket) if you want to book a flight over the phone with one of their agents. All savvy travelers should be booking themselves online and saving this fee. If for whatever reason the flight you want isn’t bookable online (website down, complex award itinerary on a partner airline that can’t be booked online), always ask the agent to waive the telephone booking fee. Nine times out of ten it is no problem. If you encounter the 10th, hang up and try another agent.
7. Don’t Fall for Unnecessary Seat Assignment Fees
More and more airlines are charging a premium just for assigned seats on the plane. And these aren’t always premium seats like United’s Economy Plus. Sometimes airlines want to charge you just so you avoid being assigned scattered middle seats all over the plane.
I’m of two minds about this. Sometimes I want to call the airline’s bluff and dare them to try to separate me from my three-year-old on a 5 hour cross country flight. Sometimes I just want the peace of mind of knowing my family will be sitting together. I always try to grab the free seats together at the time of booking. But if none are available then, I work mightily by calling and checking seat maps to get seats together before my day of travel. And if all else fails or I’m flying an ultra-low cost carrier, sometimes I cave on the fees. It’s your call. But simply being aware of this trick and knowing how to work to get seat assignments without fees can help save you money most of the time.