Call it the Summer of Fees. We've all gotten used to a bunch of extra fees from airlines, some reasonable, some irritating. But this summer travel season is taking the fee frenzy to new heights -- levels that might even delay planes and increase air rage. Here are the ones you really have to look out for.
Checked Baggage Fees
It wasn't long ago that you got to check two bags, for free, with a flight. This isn't altruism on the airlines' part. There just isn't enough overhead bin space on a full flight if everyone decided to carry on the max. I've gotten into some pretty tense situations recently on planes when the overhead bins filled up. For travel as we know it to function, people have to check some bags.
Over the past year, most airlines have quietly started charging for the second checked bag. But last week, American Airlines stunned the industry by announcing that they'll start charging $15 on June 15 for the first checked bag. There's only one other airline that does this, Spirit, and Spirit's fares are so insanely low that people tend to take their fee-happy policies in stride. But since the airline industry is made up of lemmings, now United has started talking about doing the same thing.
This fee will likely be a disaster which will end up delaying planes and fouling up boarding. Trying to avoid the fee, more people will carry on two bags, which means boarding will halt as all the overhead bins fill up, bags will need to be gate-checked, American will start agonizing over whether or how to charge for that service (they have no way to do it right now -- hint hint), and planes will be delayed as everyone is standing around.
What American needed to do was simply raise their fares $15, but of course that would have put them at a disadvantage in listings on travel booking sites.
I advise avoiding American Airlines entirely until we see how this shakes out. But if you're traveling with anything more than the clothes on your back, here's how a bunch of top airlines compare in baggage fees (the 'overweight fee' is for bags from 51-70 pounds):
- Alaska: First bag free; second bag $25 as of July 1; third bag $100 as of July 1; overweight $50
- American: $15 each way for the first checked bag starting June 15; $25 more for the second; $100 for the third; overweight $50
- United: First bag free; second bag $25; third bag $100; overweight $100
- Continental: First bag free; second bag $25; third bag $100; overweight $50
- Northwest: First bag free; second bag $25; third bag $100; overweight $50
- Delta: First bag free; second bag $25; third bag $80; overweight $80
- JetBlue: First bag free; second bag $20 as of June 1; third bag $75; overweight $50
- Southwest: Two free bags! Third bag $25, overweight $25
- Spirit: First bag $10 if reserved online, $20 at the airport; second bag $20 additional; third bag $100; overweight $50
- US Airways: First bag free; second bag $25; third bag $100; overweight $50
- Virgin America: First bag free; second bag $10; third bag $50; overweight $50
Seat Selection Fees
These fees won't delay planes, but they just make everyone crabby. The "good" versions, such as United's and JetBlue's, let you pay a bit more for a seat with extra leg room. But US Airways and Northwest have taken the seat selection fee to a truly obnoxious extent by asking you to pay extra for a window or aisle seat! Yes, in theory, on Northwest, their base fares will eventually only apply to middle seats. (For now, they're promising that only 8% of their seats will cost extra.) Here's how our airlines compare in terms of seating.
- Alaska: No seating fees.
- American: No seating fees.
- United: "Economy plus" has 35-36 inches of legroom for $14-109 extra, depending on flight length
- Continental: No seating fees.
- Northwest: Some, but not all, exit rows, aisles and windows cost $5-35 extra on domestic flights, 24 hours in advance of departure; $50 on international flights.
- Delta: No seating fees.
- JetBlue: Get 38 inches of legroom for $10-20 depending on length of flight
- Southwest: Forget seating fees, they still don't have assigned seating.
- Spirit: Surprisingly, no seating fees.
- US Airways: "Choice seats" in aisles and windows cost $5 extra, 24 hours before the flight.
- Virgin America: $15-50 "premium seat" fee for bulkhead and exit rows.
- Bonus! Air Canada: With lowest fares, it costs $15-20 to get any seat in advance
Reservation and Customer Service Fees
Anything airlines can do to avoid raising their base fares (and thus the prices in their advertisements), they'll do. So Air Canada has started charging for customer service. This is probably the most egregious fee I've seen yet. Their "On My Way" assistance service gives you access to a human customer service agent who will help rebook you and find you a free hotel and meals if your flight is delayed or cancelled.
The joke here is that this is what all airlines should do, at a minimum. But they don't. Airlines do their best to weasel out of responsibility for the awful situation of flight delays that they've caused by overscheduling flights, crowding airports and not having enough backup planes. Then they extort money out of you with a promise that they'll avoid weaseling. Lovely.
Most airlines also now charge fees to book tickets over the phone or in person. Here's a rundown of how they work.
- Alaska: $15 to book by phone or in person.
- American: $15 to book by phone; $20 to book in person
- United: $25 to book by phone; $30 to book in person
- Continental: $15 to book by phone; $35 to book in person
- Northwest: $15 to book by phone or in person
- Delta: $25 to book by phone or in person
- JetBlue: $15 to book by phone or in person
- Southwest: No booking fees!
- Spirit: No booking fee, but they double the baggage fees if you don't book online.
- US Airways: $15 to book by phone or in person
- Virgin America: $10 phone booking fee.
- Bonus! Air Canada: $25-35 for vile, extortionate "On My Way" customer service fee.
Little Eensy Fees
Nothing is a courtesy any more. Curbside check-in? That will be $2-3. Bringing a stroller? Delta's now charging $5 for the plastic bag you need to put it in at the gate. It's difficult to plan for these little eensy convenience fees, and airlines are festooning trips with them. Bring an extra $10 in cash just in case.
The Usual Fees, Just Higher
If you intend to fly with a pet, send an unaccompanied minor on a plane, or think you might need to change or cancel your ticket, think again. All of those fees are going up this year. For instance, Delta doubled their unaccompanied minor fee from $50 to $100, and raised their fee for pets in the cabin to $100 from $75. Alaska's unaccompanied minor fee is now up to $75 each way. Make sure to double check with your airline before you're hit by the sticker shock. And really, just assume that any bargain fare you buy is not eligible for any changes or cancellations.
It's interesting that none of the major online travel agents have seized on the chance to display a "total fare" including all fees. Yes, they'd have to give you a questionnaire that's more complex than the traditional search form: do you intend to check bags? Curbside? Looking for food? How about an aisle seat? But the results could be extremely useful, and it would start to reflect the real costs of air travel. Hey, Expedia, are you listening?
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