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United Jacks its Change fee to $200. What's the Real Cost?

Is the $200 change fee coming? No, it's already here.

United is the first airline to jack up the fee it charges to passengers who need to amend their domestic travel plans. Now it'll hit you for $200 to tweak your flight plans. Until April 18, the fee was $150, already very high, which means the company hiked its penalty by a third. 

Other airlines are expected to follow suit. Thanks, United.

In their merciless thirst for ever-increasing ancillary income, the airlines have learned that one of the easiest paths to profit is to hold our plans hostage. Business travelers pay the penalty without flinching, but personal lives take a real hit.

Few of us have ever counted the societal costs of high change fees. They have a real knock-on effect in our lives. How many times in the past few years have you been unable to take advantage of some new opportunity or switch up your plans to include someone you love — just because an airline's change fees were too high?

The bad news is buried, as bad news often is, somewhere you're less likely to notice it. United does not list the current change fee amounts on its fee FAQ, stating instead that the fee is "from $0 to $1,000 per passenger, based on applicable fare rules." Which means the only time you'll see that $200 number laid out in front of you will be under the fare rules that you agree to when you buy your United flight. 

United already charges up to $75 per passenger to switch flights on the same day, but if you fly a lot with the carrier and already have Premier status, it will cut you a break.

Every airline will also change you the difference in airfare if you change (which is fair), but that's on top of the fee.

There are now only two ways you can get a carrier to look the other way if you want to change a flight you've booked. The first is to change your plans within 24 hours of booking your reservation.  

The other is to buy an unrestricted ticket, but of course, that usually costs hundreds of dollars more anyway, in which case it's like paying a change fee that you may never use.

Oh — I just thought of a third: Fly Southwest. It still has no change fee.

For years, my standard advice on booking cheap air travel was this: Be flexible.

I have to amend that. Now it's this: Be flexible before you book, be inflexible after.