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3 Annoying Airline Fees — And Tricks to Avoid Them 

From checked bags to seat selection, airlines are unbundling lots of aspects of the flight

An American Airlines ticket counter in an airport
Getty Images

Need to check a bag? There’s a fee for that. Prefer an aisle seat? Be prepared to pay more. Buying an airline ticket isn’t straightforward anymore. Today there are a slew of hidden fees travelers have to pay in addition to the airfare.  ​

“Add-on fees are becoming more and more common and are a bigger part of the cost of travel,” says Scott Keyes, founder of the website Scott’s Cheap Flights. “Twenty years ago, you didn’t have as many add-on fees.” ​

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Blame our tax code for the rise in airline add-on fees. Why? Airfare is subject to a 7.5 percent federal ticket excise tax, but add-on fees are not. “If you separate the payment for a checked bag or seat selection, all that money is worth 7.5 percent more,” Keyes says. “That’s how airlines benefit from unbundling.” Charging to check a bag, select seats and have a drink in-air, instead of including it in the airfare, is also a way for airlines to keep the base ticket price low. That helps them compete, since many travelers shop based on price alone. ​

Fees are now part of flying, but you don’t have to pay all of them. There are ways to keep your airfare close to the ticket price, including these three.

1. Baggage Fees​

Prior to 2008, airlines let you check your luggage for free. American Airlines was the first major U.S. carrier to change that. Rivals quickly followed suit. While the airlines blamed high fuel costs for the new fee, they maintained it even when oil prices plummeted. Fast-forward to today and travelers are paying around $30 for the first bag and $40 or more for additional bags on most U.S. carriers. (Southwest allows two free checked bags.) The industry made $1.4 billion in baggage fees in the second quarter alone, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

How to Avoid It

Use a credit card. “The most common way people save on checked bag fees is with an airline credit card,” Keyes says. “Almost every airline credit card includes a free checked bag for you and anybody else in your party,” he says. 

Pack light. If you aren’t a frequent flier and don’t have an airline credit card, packing light is another work-around. This may be difficult if you are traveling for an extended period of time but can work for short trips. Keep in mind that some airlines have begun charging for carry-on bags. For instance, both JetBlue and United don’t allow carry-on bags for their Blue Basic (JetBlue) or Basic Economy (United) fares. Ticket holders can bring a small personal item that fits under the seat only.

2. Seat Selection

If you want an aisle or window seat, or to keep your party together, prepare to pay extra on some airlines. Seat selection fees are becoming big business for U.S. carriers, driving a lot of the à la carte revenue in the industry. ​

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How to Avoid It

Don’t choose a seat. The easiest way to avoid paying this fee is to skip seat selection when purchasing a ticket online or via a mobile app. If you don’t choose a seat, one will be assigned to you .

Ask for seating at the gate. If you're traveling with young kids, it doesn’t hurt to ask the gate agent if you can be seated together, Keyes says. He also pointed to Southwest Airlines as being particularly family-friendly. The carrier doesn't have assigned seating but lets families board together after the first 60 passengers are on the plane.​

3. Change Fees​

If you need to cancel a flight or change your travel time, expect to pay a change fee. Many full-service carriers have dropped this fee in the past couple of years, but there’s a catch: If you are purchasing a basic economy ticket and want to make a change, you’ll pay for the convenience. Budget airlines never did away with the change-flight fee, Keyes says. ​

How to Avoid It

Make changes early. There are ways to avoid this fee beyond flying with an airline that doesn’t charge it. Under a Department of Transportation rule, U.S. and foreign airlines can’t charge you for changes if they are made within 24 hours of purchasing the ticket. 

If the airline causes the conflict. If your airline makes a significant change in the departure or arrival time — airline policies vary, but usually by two hours — you are entitled to a full refund.

Have a good excuse. If you have a good reason to make the change, such as a death or illness, the airline may be willing to waive the fee. 

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