What's Up with All the Airline Fees?

Let’s start with a riddle: How can a baggage fee cost $800? Fly round-trip on United with a bag that weighs more than 70 pounds to Mexico or the Caribbean, that’s how. Hawaiian Airlines has the same overweight fee on many of its international routes.

Be sure to check out my tips for avoiding fees at the end.

But first, listen as Mr. Airfare Expert explain why fees don’t bother him:

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Airlines Fees – Nutty, or Survival Mechanism?

At this point, you may be thinking, have the airlines gone nuts? They may be brazen, but they’re not nuts. It has to do with survival. Fees are a big part of airline revenue today. Back in 1990, about 88% of airline revenue came from airfares which is all perfectly logical. But according to the latest government figures, last year fares made up only 70% of airline revenue. Much of the rest of it came from fees.

Yes, the airlines are doing pretty well for the moment – surviving (and in some cases, thriving) – but think how many carriers disappeared in the difficult days since 9/11 and the recession of a few years back (Aloha, Midwest and Skybus to name a few, while iconic TWA flew its last flight on Dec. 1, 2001).

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Hidden Fees

A big problem for a lot of infrequent travelers is, many fees change without passengers being aware of it. Sure, we hear about the sexy ones:

But did you know AirTran bumped up the charge for a first checked-bag from $20 to $25 (with a second checked-bag rising from $25 to $35), or that Delta now offers priority boarding for $10?

You could even say easy-going Southwest is getting fee-friendly with its new no-show policy; starting this fall, you’d better call ahead if you can’t make your flight or your ticket will be worth zip.

The Brutal Truth about Fees

There is a certain brutal honesty to today’s airline fees and it’s real simple: You pay for what you use. If you want a soft drink (on Frontier and Spirit, anyway), you’ll pay. Want to load up a huge suitcase? You’ll pay. Want to bring along your pup on the flight? You’ll pay. Whether these fees are worth it or not, only the individual passenger can say for sure.

How Passengers Can Avoid Fees

This too can be real simple.

Avoid bag fees:

  • Fly JetBlue or Southwest (for free checked-bags).
  • Watch the weight limits on checked and carry-on bags (these fees are expensive).
  • Pack light and use a carry-on (although Allegiant and Spirit now charge all passengers for all bags).

Avoid soft drink/snack fees:

  • Bring along food from home (or find cheaper offerings at the airport).
  • If traveling on a pay-for-soft-drinks airline, you’ll have to purchase drinks in the airport (or bring an empty water bottle through security and once you’re past the check-point, fill up at a drinking fountain).

More from Rick Seaney:

Have the Airlines Gone Nuts? More Fees

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Published: May 10, 2013