10 Ways You Can Game the Airline Fee System

Good news about today’s airline fees (yes, really):

A lot of these fees give the “just-a-couple-of-flights-a-year” flier a chance at perks he or she normally wouldn’t have a shot at in a gazillion years.

Which is bad news for elite frequent fliers, who have to stand by and watch as their “specialness” is eroded by anyone with a few bucks to spare (instead of earning perks by spending days and even weeks on a plane).

The Three Faces of Fees

But fees are here to stay. In fact, we’re now in Fees – Phase Three.

  • Fees – Phase One: The start of the era, which American AirlinesÃ? began with its first checked-bag fee back in 2008
  • Fees – Phase Two: Making for-purchase services available almost everywhere, from online to airport kiosks, to the gate and more (Virgin America, for instance, allows you to pay a fee to upgrade to first class right from your airplane seat).
  • Fees- Phase Three: New bundling strategies, like United’s Premier Travel: you pay one fee for multiple services like early boarding and free bags – at a cheaper price than you’d pay for these services separately.

Avoiding Fees Altogether

Oh, sure, you can still beat most fees by traveling in what I call “Youth Hostel Class”. You know, grab a backpack and go, and no extras. But that gets old fast if it’s been awhile since your college days.

The Seaney System for Gaming Airline Fees

So how about we beat the airlines at their own game? Allow me to introduce you to the Seaney System of Gaming the Airline Fees – and I’ll have you saving money in no time.

Top Ten Ways to Game the Airline Fee System

Good for avoiding certain fees, and getting a good price on the ones you really want.

1. Check for Cheap Upgrades

The longer these elite seats sit empty, the cheaper they’ll be so check the prices for upgrades online, then at the kiosk (even if you already printed your boarding pass at home), and finally, ask at the gate until you see the price you want. Sometimes, you’ll get a last minute airline offer you can’t refuse.

2. Fly the Poor Man’s First Class

Opt for flights on the slowest days of the week to fly, which are Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays, which is when it’s more likely that the middle seat next to you will be empty so you’ll have more room than if you’d upgraded.

Bonus: these slow days are also the cheapest days to fly so use the money you save to buy early boarding (only $10 on Southwest), then pack your favorite lunch, and you have a “faux first class” trip at a bargain price.

3. Sample the Airlines’ “All You Can Eat” Buffets

Buffets can save on airfare and bag fees. For example, this year both JetBlue and Sun Country advertised “all you can fly” deals good for a month’s worth of flights. A rule of thumb is, if you plan to take more than two coast-to-coast flights in a month, it could work for you.

Also look for “all you can check” bag deals, such as United’s service which allows you two free checked-bags on every flight for a full year for under $250 (and this includes free bags for your traveling partners).

4. Check Bags without Paying Fees

You need a credit card, so why not use one branded by your favorite airline? Delta’s and Continental’s cards give you free checked-bags and help you earn miles. All you have to do is figure out if the card fee makes it worth your while.

Or just fly JetBlue or Southwest and get bags for free, or do what I do and use a carryon.

5. Save on Change Fees

No all airlines offer this, but sometimes if you want to change your itinerary, you can pay for standby – which can be a lot less. For example, American charges $50 for its standby fee (which sure beats the carrier’s $150 “change fee”) but please note this is only good for same-day flights, for the same itinerary – and if there are no empty seats, it’s not worth a penny.

6. Avoid Peak Travel Surcharges

The airlines know when you want to fly, especially around the holidays, and they load up those travel days with peak travel surcharges. Look at an airline surcharge chart and avoid those days – or at least fly on the “cheapest surcharge” days.

7. Avoid Multiple Passenger Purchasing Penalties

Traveling with a friend or two? Buy your tickets one-at-a-time, and let me explain.

The way airline reservation systems work is quirky, but that’s how it is: if you go online and request two tickets, and the airline only has one ticket priced at $100 but it also has two tickets priced at $200 apiece, the system will not split your order; it will fulfill your request by giving you the two $200 tickets. Got that?

8. Use Technology

Face it, modern technology will find saving you can miss. So don’t be a slave to your computer, sign up for airfare alerts and use Twitter and Facebook for access to exclusive airline deals.

And attention iPhone users: we now have a real-time app for airfare alerts just for you.

9. Save on Airfare

Shop Tuesdays through Thursday because that’s when the sales are, and most of the airlines will join in on the discounting. So save, and splurge on some extra you’d really like to try.

10. Keep an Eye Out for an Edgy Flight Attendant

Okay, I’m joking – but when that JetBlue flight attendant allegedly lost it and bailed out of his plane via the emergency slide, the carrier didn’t fool around, but instead presented all passengers with a voucher good for $100 on future flights. But please, refrain from starting (or starring in) such incidents yourself.

Photo from alancleaver_2000’s photostream on flickr

More from Rick Seaney:

Top Ten Ways to Game the Airline Fee System


Updated: February 10, 2016