8 Surprising Airline Fees You’d Better Know… and How to Avoid Them

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I was reading an article the other day about 8 surprising airline fees you’d better know, but the problem is that the author didn’t give enough ways to avoid those fees.  Here are the best ways to avoid airline fees that we all hate to pay.

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8 Surprising Airline Fees You’d Better Know

Here are the 8 airline fees that the article described:

  1. Carry-on bag
  2. Reservation cancellation and change
  3. Over-the-phone and in-person booking
  4. In-flight wi-fi
  5. Picking a seat
  6. Non-alcoholic beverage
  7. Pillow or blanket
  8. Redeeming frequent flier points

…and How to Avoid Airline Fees

It absolutely sucks to pay these airline fees, so here are some tips on how to avoid them.

1. Carry-on Bag Fees

The fee to carry-on a bag is absolutely ridiculous.  Luckily, in the US, these fees are primarily relegated to tickets on the discount airlines like Allegiant ($15-$50), Frontier ($30-$60), and Spirit ($35-$100).

The easy answer is to not fly these airlines.  The ticket may seem like a discount, but when you add in all of the fees, your flight could be far more expensive than a flight on one of the major carriers.

Watch out for the “Basic Economy” fares that the big airlines now offer.  They’re trying to compete with discount airlines on price, but removing many of the perks (like free carry-on bags) that we’ve grown accustomed to.  Ticky tack fees like this are why Southwest Airlines is my favorite airline for domestic travel.

If you’re determined to fly a discount airline, check into clothing from Scottevest.  These jackets, pants, and other clothing offer bunches of hidden pockets that reduce the need for a carry-on without sacrificing the necessities of travel.

Airline fees. Scottevest hoodie xray-two-ash
An “x-ray’ of the pockets on the Scottevest hoodie

Also, consider purchasing The Works when flying Frontier.  Here’s our review of Frontier’s The Works package and whether we believe it is worth it.

2. Reservation Cancellation and Change

Airlines love it when you pay them far in advance of when you’re actually going to use their product.  Flying is one of the few business models where you pay 100% of your bill months before you’re going to use the product.

And to add insult to injury, when life happens and you need to cancel or change your flight, they want to hit you with a fee.  The ultimate insult is when the cancellation or change fees are more than the actual cost of your ticket!

So, this is another win for Southwest because they have a very flexible policy on cancellation and changes.  You can cancel your flight anytime for free or change your flight and just pay whatever the difference is.  I’ve used the Southwest change process (for both cash and points tickets) many times to reduce the cost of my flights during their regular sales.

For other airlines, I suggest watching your itinerary closely.  Flight schedules change all of the time and you can call to change or cancel your ticket when the flight times change (in some cases) by only a few minutes.  Better yet, when there’s a storm that causes delays or cancellations, even if your destination isn’t affected, call the airline and request your change or cancellation then.

Also, consider purchasing travel insurance.  Not from the airlines, but from a company like Allianz that offers options ranging from a single trip to annual policies that will cover all of your trips.  You can even get a “free look” to determine whether the coverages are right for you.

3. Over the phone and in-person booking fees

It is so funny (in not a good way) when a business wants to charge you extra when you buy their product.  Today, everyone wants you to interact only with their computers and not their people – airlines, banks, and even fast food & grocery stores.

Some airlines now charge when you book over the phone instead of on their website.  First off, I try to spend my money with businesses that don’t charge these fees – like Southwest Airlines.

If you must book with an airline that charges these fees, my trick is to complain that the website wasn’t working or say that the itinerary that you are booking isn’t available online.  When this happens, the phone agent is usually willing to waive the fee.  If not, try hanging up and calling back to speak to someone else.

When booking award tickets to redeem miles, many times, the complicated itineraries that we piece together are far too much for the computer to handle, so it requires a person to carefully enter the dates, times, and airport codes.  They’ll waive the fee when this happens as well… but you have to ask for it!  They won’t waive it on their own.

4. In-Flight Wi-Fi

In-flight wi-fi is a new profit center for airlines.  They’ve already paid for the equipment and the service, so every dollar in revenue that they receive is a win for them.

JetBlue has the highest rated wi-fi because it is fast, cheaper, and plentiful on their flights.  Click here to see who has the best and worst wi-fi in the sky.

There are a couple of ways to get around paying for in-flight wi-fi.

  • Southwest A-List Preferred members get free wi-fi on Southwest flights.
  • American Express Business Platinum cardholders get 10 free Gogo internet passes each year.
  • US Bank FlexPerks Visa cardholders get 12 free Gogo internet passes each year.
  • Use travel credits from premium credit cards (like Citi Prestige) to pay for internet access and then request a reimbursement of the charge.

If you’re a little sneaky, check out this Lifehacker strategy to get free Gogo wifi.

5. Picking a seat

The easiest way to avoid charges for picking a seat is to fly an airline that doesn’t charge for seats.  Southwest is one of the few airlines that doesn’t charge for seat assignments… ok, well that’s partly because they don’t actually assign seats to anyone.  It’s a first-come, first-served scenario.

Airline fees.

Having status with an airline is another way to avoid paying to pick a seat.  Airlines want to take care of their most loyal customers and this is a simple, yet effective, way to do that.  If you have high-enough status with an airline, you’ll also have the option to book better seats and potentially receive complimentary upgrades whenever available.

Whatever you do, don’t pay for a seat assignment.  If an airline wants to charge you for picking your seat, avoid that airline in the future.

6. Non-Alcoholic Beverages

One of the joys of flying in Business or First Class are the complimentary alcoholic beverages.  Unfortunately, you can’t always fly in premium class.

Airline fees. American Airlines First Class Pre-Boarding Drink
American Airlines First Class Pre-Boarding Drink

My favorite trick to get free non-alcoholic beverages is to pay for flights using my US Bank FlexPerks points.  On these flights, you can charge up to $25 each way on your US Bank FlexPerks credit card and receive a reimbursement on your next statement.  Super simple and easy.

More airlines are also starting to offer complimentary alcoholic beverages on international Economy flights.  So, before you book your next flight, poke around the airline’s website to see what they’re currently offering.

7. Pillow or Blanket

Pillows and blankets are more perks that are included when you are flying in Business or First Class, but don’t let that stop you.  Blankets are also included on most international overnight flights.

Airline fees. .American Airlines LHR to LAX business class
Spoiled in Business Class.

How I get around this is bringing a hoodie jacket with me.  The hood serves as a pillow and the jacket keeps me warm and cozy.  My wife likes to bring scarves with her as fashion accessories that double as blankets or pillows.

When all else fails, being pleasant and asking the flight attendant nicely is a good approach that may work for you.

8. Redeeming Frequent Flier Points

In most circumstances, when you redeem frequent flier miles and points, you won’t pay to use them.  However, you will often have to pay taxes and fuel surcharges.  Domestically, taxes are $5.60 per flight per person.  Internationally, taxes will vary considerably based on where you’re flying to.

Fuel surcharges are a recent add-on that airlines started when oil was over $100 a barrel.  As with most fees, when oil slid back down to less than $50 a barrel, the fuel surcharges remained.  How odd, right?  You know this is just an opportunity for airlines to make more money off of us.

When you route your flights, consider alternate routes and partner airlines to avoid airports that charge high fees.  For example, when we flew to Paris using American miles, we flew on Iberia through Madrid, Spain to reduce the cash portion of the flight to $300 a person vs. the $900 a person we would have paid had we flown through London’s Heathrow Airport.

Airline fees. Timmy flying from Paris
Timmy flying from Paris at 26 months.

Some airlines charge fees when you book a “close-in” flight.  This means that you’re trying to book a flight in the next 7 days.  One way to get around that is to book a flight further out, then call and change the flight to your desired date.  I’ve seen several reports of this working online, but airlines may have closed this loophole by the time you read this, so tread carefully.

Airlines also like to charge when you call and speak with them.  That’s OK because I prefer to book everything online anyway.  Way faster in my experience.  However, you can’t always book tickets online.  Their website breaks.  Your itinerary is too complex.  Or plenty of other reasons.

When that happens, call the airline and let them know that you tried to book online, but it wouldn’t work online.  They will waive the “agent booking fee” and book the flight for you.  If they continue to try to charge you, do what I do.  Politely hang up (say “I have to use the restroom” or “Someone’s at my door” and say “I’ll have to call back”) then call back a few minutes later and hope that you connect with someone my reasonable.  This known as HUCA – hang up, call again – in the travel rewards world.

The Bald Thoughts

Fees and extra charges can pop up when you least expect it.  What used to be free, often now have a dollar sign attached.  But that doesn’t always have to be the case.  Sometimes it means avoiding a certain airline altogether, while other times it means carrying the right credit card or knowing the right thing to say.  Bottom line, just because someone wants to charge you, it doesn’t mean you need to pay.  You do have alternatives and options!

What are some of the worst fees airlines and hotels have tried to charge you?  Did you pay or fight back?  What was the outcome?  Tell us about it in the comment section below.

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