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How to Avoid New Airline Surcharges

Matt Collins Airline fees

Photo: Matt Collins

The days of the all-inclusive airline ticket are gone. In fact, as any traveler knows, lately carriers have added extra fees to offset rising fuel costs, charging for everything from checking baggage and in-flight drinks and food ($7 for a sandwich on United!) to booking international frequent-flier award tickets (Delta recently added a $50 fee). And by the time you read this, the list has undoubtedly already gotten longer.

A recent report by the Business Travel Coalition, a Pennsylvania-based corporate advocacy group, warned that if oil prices continue to increase, almost all major airlines could default on debts by the end of this year or in early 2009. The International Air Transport Association estimates that rising fuel prices will cost the airline industry $176 billion this year alone. While I’m of the opinion that carriers should just raise fares instead of hiding behind that once-complimentary can of soda, I acknowledge that they’re in a tough position. The problem: higher ticket prices may make travelers more reluctant to fly, or they may choose another carrier. So for now, the fees are staying. Luckily, there are ways around them. Here’s what you can do:

Baggage Charges

This summer, United Airlines, US Airways, and American Airlines began charging travelers $15 to check a single bag and $40 to check two. But certain status levels, fare types, and itineraries may exempt a traveler from this fee, which most carriers limit to flights to Canada and within the United States and its unincorporated territories. At press time, US Airways was charging the fee for all its destinations, with the exception of Europe.

If you buy a business- or first-class seat, you’re entitled to free checked bags. On many airlines, elite-status frequent fliers and global alliance members are exempt from baggage fees. And full-fare economy-class passengers on American won’t pay either.

Seat Fees

Airlines are also recouping costs with seat-selection fees. US Airways passengers can opt to pay between $5 and $30 for a coach seat near the front of the plane when checking in online. Spirit charges an additional $15 for an exit row, and JetBlue $10 and up for its “Even More Legroom” seats. United’s new $349 a year Economy Plus Access membership gets you and your traveling partner seats with five inches more legroom (when available). Naturally, you can avoid these charges by simply not choosing your seat ahead of time. Depending on the number of people who’ve paid for preferred seating in advance, you’ll still have a shot, albeit a chancy one, at your first choice.

Miscellaneous Fees

Delta now charges $25 (up from $20) for booking with one of its agents on the telephone versus no fee for buying online. Most other airlines add at least $15 per ticket. And expect to spend $5–$10 for purchasing through third-party sites such as Travelocity and Expedia. To avoid paying more, buy your ticket directly from airline websites. In addition, Continental and Northwest recently instituted fees of $25 and up for switching to an earlier flight the same day. And United’s change penalty has jumped from $100 to $150. Be sure to check airline policies in advance. Often, paying a higher fare for some flexibility, especially if you think you might need to alter your itinerary, can end up saving you money.

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