Multiple airline fees add to travel costs

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Gone are the days when airlines would ply you with hot meals and cold drinks.

Today, the price of a ticket just gets you through the plane door. Other items, from seat assignments to soft drinks, meals and additional luggage, are often a la carte.

Basically, airlines are saying, “We just get you there, anything else is extra,” says Rick Seaney, CEO of, a Web site that tracks airfare prices and trends.

One “extra” that really isn’t optional for travelers: fuel. Many airlines are levying additional fees to cover the rising cost of fuel. In some cases, those surcharges can be as much as the fare itself.

To get your best deal, decide what’s important to you for a good flight. It may be worth it to pay the tab for some items (extra leg room anyone?). Or you might want to slice every dollar you can to splurge at your destination. Either way, you’re choosing where to spend your money.

Here’s the quick run-down of some fees you’re likely to see if you’re flying in the next few months, along with strategies for keeping that money in your pocket:

1. Fuel surcharges. Bob Whitley, president of the U.S. Tour Operators Association, noticed that the fuel surcharges for one destination with one airline changed “three times in a 15-day period — and it’s not going down,” he says.

Last year, surcharges were running about $20 round-trip for domestic flights, says Seaney. This year, surcharges on domestic flights are as high as $170 round-trip. Surcharges on European flights are averaging about $340, and for Asia, the average is about $360, he says.

Avoid by: Shopping around and looking at total cost (fare plus fuel surcharge), not just fares. Surcharges vary, even for the same destination. Some carriers may not levy surcharges either across the board or on certain routes. A higher fare with a lower surcharge could add up to a cheaper trip.

2. Food and drink. With airlines, don’t expect a full meal unless you’re on a trans-Atlantic or trans-Pacific flight, says David Lytle, editorial director for

Instead, you can purchase a la carte snacks, like a bag of nuts, candy or chips, or sometimes a boxed lunch, often for about $3 to $10.

Alcoholic drinks are running $3 to $6, Seaney says.

Nonalcoholic drinks, like water, coffee, tea and sodas, used to be free, but that might not be the case the next time you fly. While some airlines are still giving away coffee, tea, water and soft drinks, others are charging $1 to $3, depending on the carrier and the beverage.

Avoid by: For a short hop, eat before you leave or plan a restaurant stop right after you land. For long hauls (or if you have kids or medical issues), pack your own snacks. Not only will they be cheaper (you can pay warehouse prices), but chances are you’ll come up with healthier alternatives to the standard salty, fried or sugary varieties you’re likely to succumb to onboard.

With drinks, you can carry an empty bottle through security and fill it at a water fountain before you board. If that’s too much of a hassle, then paying a few bucks for the onboard drinks may be the smart choice. Here’s why: Flying tends to dehydrate you, so you need liquid. Drinks from airport concessions are likely to cost as much (or more) as the in-flight beverages.

3. A ‘better’ seat. The new twist with some airlines: If you have a preferred seat on the plane, you pay extra for it. For a fee, you can select an aisle, window or some other location (for instance, adjacent to the bulkhead or next to an emergency door). Not every airline charges this fee, but it’s worth asking if your preferences have a price tag attached. The going rate: $5 to $15, one way, says Seaney.

Avoid by: Take a gamble and select your seat the day before the flight, says Seaney. How this works: When you download your boarding pass 24 hours before the flight, you choose your seat from the available spots that are left, and there’s no charge, he says. But plan to make your choice exactly 24 hours before you fly, he advises. Airlines won’t allow you to select your seat (post ticket purchase) any earlier, and the sooner you do it, the more choices you’ll have.

4. Frequent flier mile redemption charges. Want to turn those frequent flier miles into a real ticket to ride? It’s probably going to cost you more miles than it would have a year ago, says Alexander Anolik, an attorney and co-author of “Traveler’s Rights: Your Legal Guide to Fair Treatment and Full Value.” Many airlines have raised the number of miles you have to spend to claim a free ticket. If you’re traveling in the near future, there may be a separate fee to expedite the order.

In addition to spending your miles for the ticket, you may have to cough up extra cash to cover the fuel surcharge before you’re done, Seaney says.

In addition, with a shrinking number of seats and flights, some airlines have made it all but impossible to use miles to visit some popular vacation destinations like Orlando and Las Vegas, he says.

Avoid by: It’s often easier to redeem frequent flier miles for more ordinary domestic destinations, says Seaney. And “you can always find a seat during the week,” he says. So pay for the long, exotic jaunts out of your own pocket and use your miles for more vanilla trips.

Also analyze why you’re playing the frequent flier game in the first place. If you want free trips, and you’re not getting them, maybe you take your membership to another airline or pick another credit card perk that will give you more of a payback. If you use membership to gain better treatment when you do travel, and getting free or discounted tickets is simply a side-benefit, just realize that the cost of cashing in those points is likely going to be higher now.

5. Checked bags. This is the fee that’s been making headlines. Airlines used to let you check up to two bags for free. Now, some airlines are charging for that second checked bag, while some are even charging for the first one. What you’ll pay: Fees are generally running $15 to $50, according to industry watchers.

Avoid by: Taking one bag and packing light. Just because you can cram everything into one regulation-size bag doesn’t mean you’ve beaten the fee system. If your suitcase comes in over-weight, you’ll face an additional fee.

Forget mailing bags ahead of time. “It’s going to cost you more to ship your luggage,” than it would cost you to check the bag, says Lytle.

Also, board as early as you can. Since everyone is switching to carry-ons, those overhead bins are filling up fast. Keep an eye on your luggage, even after you stow it. With a shortage of available space, incoming passengers have been known to “rearrange” the existing luggage to make room for their own.

6. Change fees. Need to change your schedule? Expect to pay an extra $150 for domestic flights, up about 50 percent from last year, says Seaney.

“To me, that’s the one I dislike most,” he says. “They are already charging you the difference in price for the new ticket,” he says. Because it’s usually booked at the last minute, it’s already going to be a higher rate.

Avoid by: Other than trying to sweet talk a ticket agent, there’s really no way around this one.

7. Phone reservations. Want to talk to a human being when you book that reservation? That’s an extra $15 to $30 per ticket with some airlines, says Seaney.

There’s less overhead for the airline (which means more profit), if you book through their Web site. So they’re trying to give you a financial incentive to use the online service.

“The bottom line is they’re trying to prevent people from talking to humans,” says Seaney. And 60 percent of flyers do book online.

Avoid by: Doing the phone line/online two-step. Just about every traveler has questions before booking airfare. So call the toll-free numbers and nail down all the details. (While you’re at it, ask what the charge is to book by phone).

Once you’ve done that and know exactly which route, flight and seat you want, then hang up the phone and book online. While it makes zero sense (the airline still has to pay the salary of the phone agent), at least you’ll likely save a nice chunk of change for exactly the same accommodations.

8. Pet fees/unaccompanied minor fees. Both of these have gone up substantially on many airlines. Some have even doubled in the past year. Best bet: if you have kids or pets traveling alone over the next few months, ask about fees so that you know what to expect.

Avoid by: Streamlining the itinerary. Fees for unaccompanied travelers (either two-legged or four-legged), often increase exponentially if there are stops or plane changes. (The quoted fees are usually for each leg of the trip, so adding a stop can double the fee.) A nonstop route will usually minimize fees, but you want to balance that with the needs of the traveler.

Join and save

There’s one more way that you can eliminate a lot of the airlines’ add-on fees: join a frequent flier club. “In many cases, fees won’t apply to upper tier frequent fliers,” says David Castelveter, vice president of communications for the Air Transport Association, a trade group for the major U.S. passenger and cargo airlines.

Not spending enough time in airports to qualify? You might be able to get in by using an airline-affiliated credit card to collect frequent flier miles, Seaney says. “That can give you elite status,” he says.

If you’re already a member of another carrier’s frequent flier program, simply request membership with any other airline you’re planning to fly. Competing airlines love the opportunity to win your business, so they’ll automatically enroll you for a year, says Seaney.

The bottom line for all fliers: get educated and keep asking questions.

The fee system is “byzantine,” says Lytle. “Just when you think you’ve figured it out, they will change it or add something different.”

Never assume the rules are the same as the last time you flew. Each time you travel, be persistent in asking about any fees or add-ons.

When cost is an issue, Seaney says, “You can get around most fees if you use some common sense.”

Written by
Dana Dratch
Personal Finance Writer
Dana Dratch is a personal finance and lifestyle writer who enjoys talking all things money and credit. With a degree in English and writing, she likes asking the questions everyone would ask if they could and sharing the answers — along with smart money management tips from the experts.