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Guide to Hidden Airline Fees

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Photo: © Larry Downing/Reuters/Corbis

See our slideshow of the Guide to Hidden Airline Fees.

Planning to attend your annual family reunion in Chicago, you spend hours searching online for the best available plane fare. Finally, success: on a discount-booking site you find a round-trip ticket on US Airways for less than $180. Done deal.

At the airport, though, you discover that checking your two suitcases (one heavy with presents for family members) will set you back $50. Then, on the plane, a flight attendant informs you that a pillow and blanket will cost you another $7. Headphones to screen out the crying baby in the next row: $5. Same price for a can of beer to help you take the edge off. By the time you’ve reached your destination, your wallet’s lighter by about $70—almost half the price of your original ticket.

The extra fees that airlines now charge passengers—for everything from in-flight snacks to choosing a window or aisle seat—can accrue alarmingly fast. And when you can easily find yourself bumped from an overbooked flight, or sitting inexplicably on the tarmac for hours without taking off, they can seem like insult added to injury.

But there are things you can do to keep the nickeling-and-diming under control, says George Hobica, who runs the online airfare monitoring site airfarewatchdog.com. “It would be great if the carriers had fee charts that laid out all these costs in a full-disclosure way,” he says. “But since they don’t, passengers need to be proactive.”

Among Hobica’s suggestions for avoiding unexpected fees:

  • Consider shipping your luggage. Ground transport via UPS, FedEx, or even Express Mail can cost less than checking at the airport—and makes tracking lost bags much easier.
  • Leave Fido at home. A good pet-sitter is often more economical than the stiff fees (usually more than $100 per one-way flight) required to bring animals on board.
  • Always book online. The good old-fashioned method of calling an airline to reserve by phone can now cost up to $35.
  • Bring your own snacks, travel blanket, and pillow in your carry-on. And if you shell out once for a set of headphones, keep the adapter plug to bring with you on your next same-carrier flight.
  • Don’t discount the “discount” airlines. Southwest Air, for example—long considered a budget option—is actually one of the only domestic carriers that doesn’t charge any extra fees. The reason, according to Southwest spokesman Chris Mainz: “What used to be considered ‘no frills’—like peanuts and sodas rather than full meals—are now considered amenities. Since we’ve always offered those things for free, we still do.”
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