All the Hidden Costs of Flying and How to Avoid Them

While you can't avoid all fees completely, a little research goes a long way.

When it comes to booking a flight, what you see is not always what you get. That cheap airfare looks pretty great at first—but by the time you hit the check-out page, the price has suddenly doubled.

"I was searching for flights on Volaris (a budget airline out of Mexico) and the fare was advertised as $90 one-way," says Lauren LaBar of Upaway, an app that provides 24/7 trip support like handling lost luggage and taking care of flight changes. "During the booking process, you go through three to six different 'add-on' sections, and the fees…bring the total cost of the round-trip flight to over $350."

The reality is we're living in a time of outrageous airline fees. Budget airlines like Allegiant Air and Spirit Airlines lure travelers in with $49 flights, but then charge you extra for seat selection, in-flight refreshments, extra legroom, and even printing your boarding pass at the airport instead of at home. Even big-name airlines like Delta and United charge up to $150 for checked luggage.

Unfortunately, there's no way to avoid airline fees altogether. But if you do your research and learn a few tricks, you may be able to significantly trim down the final ticket price. Here are some fees you should be aware of—and how to avoid them, if possible.

stack of money and airplanes
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Baggage

Having to shell out extra for checked luggage and carry-on items isn't really a surprise anymore. And since airlines collect billions of dollars each year on baggage fees alone, we probably won't be returning to the days of free luggage anytime soon.

Most domestic airlines allow passengers one carry-on bag and one personal item free of charge—except for those aforementioned budget airlines. Spirit Airlines charges between $41 to $65 for carry-on luggage (you pay slightly less if you pay online as opposed to at the airport), while Allegiant charges between $10 to $75. You can only dodge those fees if you're able to fit all your belongings in a backpack or personal item (according to Spirit, a personal item is "something like a laptop bag or purse smaller than 18x14x8 inches.")

Checked luggage is where airlines really start raking in the cash. JetBlue and Southwest don't charge for the first checked bag, but pretty much every other major airline charges around $25. You can avoid these fees by fitting everything in that one carry-on and personal item. Another popular hack is to layer up your clothes before you get to the airport, thereby lightening up your suitcase to avoid overweight baggage fees.

Seat Selection

Paying extra to select your seat in advance is another standard fee these days. When purchasing your ticket, there's almost always a step in the process that allows customers to choose their seat from a little map—standard seats might cost $10, while exit rows or window seats will be higher. The fee only applies to one leg of your trip, so if you have several layovers or connecting flights, those numbers add up pretty quickly.

The most obvious way to avoid seat selection fees is to skip this step completely. (Despite what airlines want you to believe, seat selection is completely optional.) With some airlines, you'll have another chance to choose your seats when you check-in for your flight within 24 hours of departure. If you set a timer on your phone to do this right when the 24-hour window opens, there's a good chance you will be able to find available seats next to your travel partner(s). Worst case scenario, you'll be stuck in a middle seat or have to split up from your travel party.

While seating arrangements might not matter for solo travelers or couples, it's a much bigger deal for families with children. If you don't want to risk sitting in a different row from your kids, educate yourself on different airlines' seat selection fees. According to NerdWallet, basic seats range from $0 to $23 on major domestic airlines. Alaska, Hawaiian, JetBlue, and United have more modest prices, while Delta, American, Spirit, and Frontier are much higher.

So while Spirit tickets start super-cheap, for example, you'll need to add $23 per passenger, per leg of the trip if you want to pre-select your seats. Depending on your travel party's size, that could potentially add hundreds of dollars to your final line. On the other hand, tickets for Alaska Airlines might be pricier, but seat selection for basic economy is completely free. Do the math and figure out what works best for your situation.

Booking Fees

You're probably used to booking flights online, but did you know you might be paying extra for that convenience? This mostly applies to those oh-so-sneaky budget airlines. Allegiant charges an "Electronic Usage Charge" of $18 per passenger, per segment. And Spirit has a "Passenger Usage Charge" of $22.99 per passenger, per segment. Even purchasing tickets over the phone can cost an additional $15 per person.

The hack to avoiding booking fees is an inconvenient one: Purchase your tickets in person. This will involve driving to the airport, parking, finding the airline's ticket counters (which are only open during certain times), and buying your tickets from the representative. (And remember: Baggage fees are often increased if you pay at the airport.) This option is probably too much of a headache for most people. But for huge families with multiple layovers, the savings might be worth the hassle.

Change Fees

Aside from Southwest, every major domestic airline charges fees to change or cancel your flight—and those fees can get as high as $400 depending on your airline and destination. Many companies have gotten much more lenient during the pandemic, with some even eliminating change fees altogether. But you'll definitely want to know your airline's policy before you book.

The financial analysis website ValuePenguin has a great breakdown of each airlines' policies here, including COVID-19 updates. The strictest policies come from—surprise!—the low-cost carriers. Spirit only allows free changes if made 60 days from your departure date; from there, fees increase to $99. Frontier has similar policies, though their maximum fee is $79. Some airlines only charge for same-day changes, like Delta ($75) and Alaska ($50).

Ideally, you should make any changes to flights within 24 hours of original booking. If that's not possible, ValuePenguin suggests getting reimbursed through your credit card company. Credit cards with travel insurance—like Chase Sapphire—often issue refunds for trips canceled due to illness, death, weather, and other factors.

LaBar offers this other tip: "If you find yourself with a basic economy fare that you need to change, sometimes you can upgrade to economy for a small fee but salvage the cost of your ticket!"

Boarding Passes

Paying extra to have your boarding pass printed at the airport is one of the silliest airline fees out there, but here we are. Spirit charges $10 per pass and Allegiant charges $5 per pass, which very quickly adds up if you're traveling as a family.

Luckily, there are two super easy ways to avoid these charges: 1) Print the passes at home, or 2) Save the tickets on your phone or airline app. There's really no downside to downloading those apps anyway, so you might as well go for it.

In-Flight Amenities

Think the fees end after you purchase your ticket? Think again. Airlines can still squeeze dollars out of you once you're on the plane, charging high prices for food, beverages, WiFi, and even blankets and pillows.

Many airlines still offer free snacks and non-alcoholic beverages, but you should expect to pay up to $12 for meals or premium snacks. Beer, wine, and spirits range from $5 to $11 per drink. You can always stock up on food and drinks at the airport after you go through security, but airport prices aren't exactly much lower. Your best money-saving bet is to prepare snacks at home beforehand (just make sure they're TSA-approved) and bring a reusable water bottle to fill up at the airport.

JetBlue is the only U.S. airline that currently offers free WiFi to all passengers. Most airlines offer in-flight internet for either one hour or 24 hours; they also have monthly and annual plans for frequent fliers. Southwest is the least expensive, charging a flat rate of $8 per day. From there, you can expect to pay around $10 for hour passes and $25 for day passes.

While some airlines charge for blankets and pillows, others don't offer those comforts at all in economy class. Stay comfy by packing your own memory foam neck pillow and blanket (or long scarf, if you need to save carry-on space). You don't want to be the 1,000th head to touch those pillows anyway.

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