Why Lower Fares at Frontier Mean You'll Actually Pay More

Why Lower Fares at Frontier Mean You'll Actually Pay More

Posted on April 29, 2014

Your carry-on luggage now will cost you an extra $25 to $100 dollars at Frontier Airlines.

Frontier Carry On Fees

Photo: Cubbie_n_Vegas / Flickr (via Wikimedia Commons)

Starting yesterday (4/28/14), Frontier changed to an ultra-low fare model and is boasting that the change means that airfares are now an average of 12% lower than they were before the switch. The catch is that they will now charge up to $50 per direction if you want to take a carry-on bag with you on the flight. It's also worth noting that a checked bag is $20 - or $5 less than the cheapest carry-on option. And thus Frontier joins Spirit and Allegiant as the third U.S. domestic airline to begin charging travelers for carry-on luggage.

"With an unbundled product, customers can save even more by choosing to pay for only the products that they want, allowing them to customize their flight experience for each and every flight," said David Siegel, CEO of Frontier Airlines, in a press release posted to FlyFrontier.com. "With today’s further reduction in Frontier’s amazing low fares our customers will find even greater value and our guaranteed lowest fare when they book at FlyFrontier.com."

So Frontier is doing its best to convince the flying public that this change is to their benefit, but let's be honest: When was the last time you flew without a carry-on?

Frontier understands what every modern air traveler knows: Overhead bin space is at a premium now that flyers use it to avoid checked baggage fees. No profit-motivated business, and especially not an airline, is going to lower prices just for the good of the consumer. If it's not adding to their bottom line, they're not going to do it. And when you crunch the numbers here, the truth becomes clear. Frontier may have lowered fares, but they actually raised their prices. 

Frontier's new carry-on bag fee schedule:

Pay the carry-on fee during booking $25 each way
Pay during online check-in $30 each way
Pay when you add it to an existing reservation $35 each way
Pay while checking in at the airport
(both self-service and at the counter)
$35 each way
Pay at the gate during boarding $50 each way

You can check out Frontier's full Carry-On Baggage Policy and all of its fine print for more details.

And now for the math that shows why this is going to cost travelers more.

If the average fare was reduced by 12%, and the cheapest way to check a carry-on on a round-trip ticket is going to cost you $50, then the round-trip base fare must exceed $416.67 for a customer with a carry-on to see any savings, and this is almost never the case.

For example, as of today (4/29/14), a round-trip fare from Denver to Chicago on 6/15/14 and returning 6/21/14 carries a base fare of $206.52, plus a tax of $37.48 tax (roughly 20%) for a grand total of $244.00 before a $50 carry-on fee (assuming that you were smart enough to add it during booking), and $294.00 once that fee is added.  Assuming that this same fare was previously 12% higher, then the fare was $231.30, and $277.56 after that same 20% tax, and the carry-on bag was included. That works out to an extra $16.43 for Frontier, or up to $66.43 if you make it all the way to the gate without paying up.

And these numbers assume that you didn't also pay to choose your seat, a privilege that costs a minimum $3 per ticket. This was the story with every sample fare we checked, although the amount of profit varied. Plus, all carry-on bag fees are nonrefundable - even if you don't end up carrying on any bags at all.

We see this change as a marketing gimmick at best and a fare trap at worst. There's a reason the federal government mandated taxes be disclosed when advertising fares: because excluding them obscured the customer's final price and made price comparisons difficult. The airlines know full well that almost no one flies without a checked bag or carry-on, and so Frontier's "consumer friendly" move smells more like a way to advertise lower fares while actually taking more of that consumer's money by charging for add-ons that once were included by default.