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Airline Travel: Airfare Fees and Charges

Updated on June 5, 2012

There’s a fee for that!

What was once the domain of only “budget” airlines has now become the standard airline industry model. An ever increasing array of airline fees introduced over the past few years means that when you purchase an airline ticket is rarely the last time you will be charged.

More and more your base airfare covers less and less of the air travel experience. So you buy your ticket

When I first started travelling regularly finding a good deal on an air fare was easy. You went to punched in your route and compared the prices. You then went to the website of your airline of choice after deciding whether loyalty to your preferred airline was worth the frequent flyer miles for any surcharge over the cheapest option.

Job done.

That is no longer the case today. More and more, your base airfare covers less and less of the air travel experience. So you buy your ticket and depending on your airline of choice you will find yourself confronted by (m)any for the following fees:

Fees Before You Arrive at the Airport

There are now a handful of fees that will you will face during the booking process. These fees are of course in addition to the airfare and the airport charges and fule surchrges we've already become accostomed to.

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Booking Offline

Do you have a complex itinerary, or want to confirm details with an associate of the airline? Be prepared to pay a surcharge for that if you book your airfare over the phone– up to $50 a ticket.

The Continental Airlines of old charged $20 a ticket for phone reservations, a fee they would waive if you made the case that your itinerary couldn’t be booked online – after some haggling.

Generally, the only way to avoid this fee, book your airfares online. You better hope you aren’t travelling with infants or children. This is one area where online booking systems really fall down on a number of airlines, especially if you want to purchase a seat for your child under 2 years old.

Airfare Hold Fee:

Want to hold your airfare for 24 hours – that will be $25 dollars thank you. Upfront. By the time you check out your online airfares, you’d better be ready to book, or take the risk that you will lose the fare.

When I started travelling regularly for business in the US, Continental Airlines provided that service for free. Then the option disappeared, but frequent flyers could cancel within 24 hours fee free. Now as United Airlines there is a fee.

Pay by Credit Card:

Airlines wear a fee from the credit card processing company for each transaction processed. It can vary from 1% to 3% of the transaction value. For many years Airlines wore this, but as the industry has had to cope with additional cost pressures – pensions and rising fuel costs just to name two – this fee has been passed on to passengers.

Overseas it is common for this fee to be upfront. Budget and so –called full service airlines in Europe and Australia quite frankly call the fee a credit card processing fee. Which airlines? Lufthansa, Swiss, British Airways and Qantas have all engaged in the practice.

Seat Reservation Fee

Do you want to pick your own seat? There’s a fee for that on Australia’s flagship carrier, Qantas. Fees start at $25 but quickly rocket up to $160 for an exit row seat on a long-haul flight between Los Angeles and Sydney. If you leave it up to the airlines computer to assign you a seat? You and your travel companions had better be booked under the same booking reference. And even then be prepared to play musical chairs with passengers once on board.

United Airlines will also charge a seat premium fee. On my last short haul (under 1 hour) flight there was a $10 surcharge for a bulkhead row seat. On US Airways there is a reported $5 fee surcharge for a window seat.

Who else does it? American Airlines, Air Tran and even budget carrier Southwest who has a policy of no pre-assigned seating now offers a seat reservation for fee system.

Fees at the Airport:

You will likely meet the following fees once you are at the airport. Some of them, like the checked bag fee may be reduced if paid prior to arriving at the airport.

Checked Bag Fees:

There was much outrage when the first airlines began charging for checked bags. Initially there was a charge just for the first checked bag, but as passengers got wise and just carried bigger and bigger bags onto the aircraft, airlines began charging for all checked bags and policing carry-on bags. All of which added time to the check-in process.

It is fairly common practice for airlines to charge for checked bags on a sliding scale these days. Indicative pricing - $25 for each leg for the first bag, $35 for the second and $100 plus for the third bag.

You will notice the word “leg” in the previous paragraph. Take care to check whether the airline you book with charges baggage fees for each flight leg or by the trip legs. For example: is the $25 first bag fee going to apply if you fly from Dallas to Phoenix then change planes to Los Angeles? Or will that cost you $50?

One way to reduce the cost of your checked bag fee is to pay upfront online before you arrive at the airport. You will see reductions of $10 to $15 per bag depending on the airline. Checked bag fees are also often waived if you are connecting to an international flight. Depending on the airline and who checks you in on the day, this may only apply if you have the domestic leg ticketed on the same ticket as the international flights.

Gate Checked Bags Fee

Think you can avoid paying for checked bags by trying to sneak oversized luggage into the cabin? Think again. Not only will you irritate your fellow passengers but you will be charged a gate check bag fee. And yes, there is a premium for being trying to be sneaky.

Alaska Airlines is the first US airline to mimic the model already implemented by European airlines and charge for gate checked bags that exceed regulation size.

Carry-on Bags Fee

Two years ago when Spirit airlines introduced fees for carry-on bags, starting at $45 a bag there was a huge passenger outcry. The fee however was so successful in reducing carry-on bags that it is being upped to $100 per bag this fall.

In flight Fees

Think the fees stop once you've run the gauntlet of check in, security and boarding? Think again!

Pillow and Blanket Fees

Since you no longer have room in your carry-on bag to bring your own pillow and blankets, the airlines will kindly supply you with one. For a fee.

JetBlue charged $7 for a pillow and blanket when the fee was introduced in 2008 and American Airlines in 2012 introduced an $8 charge for the same items.

inflight Entertainment Charges

Unless you are flying internationally, where airlines are likely to have a personal video on demand system (Qantas, Virgin, British Airways to name a few), be prepared to pay for your in flight entertainment. These charges take many forms:

  • A few dollars for a headset, or
  • $6-$8 for United’s offer of DIRECTV on select flights (Free in Business First) or
  • $10-$15 for an iPad rental on Jetstar

Inflight Food

Charging for food is nothing new. We’ve all become accustomed to bringing our own snacks on domestic flights within the US because let’s face it, pretzels and water just aren’t going to get you through a 3 hour flight. But this just adds another cost to the airline travel experience, especially if you travel with a family.

Airline Fees – What are the consequences?

For budget conscious travelers the biggest problem all these variable fees charged by different airlines is in fare comparison. An airfare comparison across airlines is no longer a simple matter of going to to find the cheapest fare. It is now involves a spreadsheet and hours of reviewing the different supplementary fees that each airline will impose.

And if your trip is short, and you are travelling with a family? Add to the complexity of finding a good airfare deal, the hassle of checking in, clearing security and going through the boarding gate shuffle and the best answer may just be – ROAD TRIP!


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