Airline Fees: Which Fees to Pay, Which Fees to Avoid

I’ve often said some travel fees are worth paying, and some should be ignored. Let’s get specific.

LISTEN: Fees? Phooey. Except for some, says Rick.

Avoid These Fees

Know the fees before your fly.

Reservation change fee: The notorious change fee can run as high as $200 (American, Delta, United) so if you are uncertain about your dates when booking a flight, do not commit until you are sure (although the law allows 24 hours to change your mind without penalty). The alternative is a refundable ticket but these are typically so expensive that it’s actually cheaper to risk the change fee.

Overweight baggage fee: Some airlines will charge $200 or more if a single checked-bag is a single pound overweight, and this fee can double on international flights. Weight limits vary by airline but most allow up to 50 pounds before overweight fees are assessed.

Pay These Fees

What to pay may depend on what kind of traveler you are.

Fearful flyer: Some airlines have help for those who are afraid to fly, but it will cost you. We’ve heard good things about British Airways comprehensive Flying with Confidence classes which are held in cities around the world (about $300 for the day-long program in New York).

Backpacker: Normally we tell travelers to use a carry-on to avoid the typical $50 checked-baggage fee, but three discount carriers – Allegiant, Frontier and Spirit – charge for all bags and the fees for carry-ons can actually be higher than checking a large suitcase! In other words, this is one case where it may pay to check your bag. However, you can still be a minimalist traveler and pay no bag fees whatsoever if your carry-on fits under the seat in front of you.

Traveling with kids: Most parents carry all sorts of extras from baby seats to diaper bags and snacks and getting all this settled – along with a cranky kid or two – is reason enough to pay an early boarding fee. These can be cheap – Southwest charges just 12.50 – and it may even be free depending on your status with an airline miles program or if you use an airline-branded credit card.

Traveling without kids: You maybe wish to pay a little more for a seat in the No Kids Zone, though frankly most of these are available only on international airlines such as Singapore-based Scoot. If flying in the U.S. you may escape screaming babies by paying a lot more for business or first class (a kind of de facto No Kids Zone) but I prefer a simpler method: Noise-cancelling headphones.

Cheap business flyer: If your boss is on a budget and won’t spring for those wonderful lie-flat seats in business class, see if you can get him to spring for premium economy which offers some perks. Or try upgrading with your own miles, or using an airline branded credit card. Many cards offer a range of comforts for free but they may also come with a fairly steep annual fee of their own.

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Updated: February 4, 2015