The Department Of Transportation recently announced that it wants to help you avoid airline fees. That's great, but who knows when, or if, these proposals will actually happen. In the mean time, I know that a cheap airfare isn't such a good deal if I get socked with paying a fee to carry my own bag or to have my wife and I sit together.
The airlines and the travel agents contend that these fees will cost them money to disclose, and they warn about passing these costs onto passengers. But do their threats make sense? The DOT says that this new rule would cost the airlines $5.1 million in the first year, and $24.7 million in the next decade.
That sounds like a lot of money until you consider that there were 642 million airline passengers in the U.S last year, so the first year cost is less than a penny per passenger. Or to put it another way, $5.1 million is still less than United paid its CEO last year. Its funny how the airlines never talk about increasing fares to pay for their executive salaries. But still, I would gladly pay my fraction of a penny to be told about airline fees before I buy my tickets.
So while I am all in favor of these proposed new rules, here is how I avoid these pesky airline fees in the mean time, and you can too:
1. Don't consider all airlines equal. There was a day when you could buy the cheapest ticket on any airline and expect decent service no matter who you flew. Those days are gone, and travelers have to be extra careful buying tickets on so-called ultra-low cost carriers such as Spirit, Allegiant, and Frontier. These airlines charge extra for carry on bags, unless you pay more for your plane ticket. They even charge more at the airport than they do online, and more at the gate then they do at the ticket counter, so be extra cautious.
2. Don't fall for the seat selection charges. In most cases, you don't need to pay this fee to get a decent seat or to sit next to your traveling companions. Even if the airline doesn't offer seat assignments until check-in, the trick here is to get a seat assignment exactly 24 hours before your flight.
3. Avoid checked baggage fees. On carriers that don't charge for checked bags, you can usually pack a maximum sized carry-on and a personal item such as a backpack, purse, or briefcase. Another great trick is to get the airline's credit card. Delta, American, United, and US Airways all grant a free checked bag to travelers with their entry level credit card. Since this benefit usually applies to others traveling on the same itinerary, and many of these cards waive the annual fee for the first year, you can save hundreds of dollars of bag fees at no cost to you.
4. Avoid carry-on bag fees. I don't like it when I get charged something for nothing, but that's what airlines are doing when they force you to pay to carry your own bag onto the plane. If the low fares offered by Spirit, Frontier, or Allegiant are just too tempting, you can still avoid those fees by carrying on something that counts as a "personal item." This is a bag that can fit under the seat in front of you, but it doesn't have to. Once you get on the plane, no one is going to stop you from putting it in the overhead bin so you have a place to put your feet.
5. Try to fly on awards in business and first class. I know what you are thinking, premium class airfares cost two or three times as much as flying coach, which is more expensive than paying a few fees. True, but when you book an award flight in business class using your miles, it is often just 50-80% more than the same coach ticket. For those extra miles, you get priority service, a huge free baggage allowance, great food, and a big seat that you never have to pay an extra fee to reserve. Take a nice shower in the business lounge after an international flight, and you will find the extra miles to be well spent.
In fact, airline miles are easier than ever to earn. For example, American Airlines currently offers a credit card with a 100,000 mile sign-up bonus, and Chase's Ink Bold and Ink Cashcards offer 60,000 points which can be transferred to airline miles with several different carriers.
6. Vote with your wallet. While the major airlines and the ultra-low cost carriers both enjoy hitting you with outrageous fees that they don't want disclosed, two airlines have taken the opposite approach. JetBlue allows one free checked bag and charges no seat assignment fees, other than for seats with extra leg room. In fact, they will even give you credits towards your next flight if your flight is delayed, and waive their cancellation fees if you loose your job.
Southwest offers each passenger two free checked bags, and no change fees. Travelers can always rebook their flights at the current price, and even receive a credit if the price drops. No wonder these two companies have avoided bankruptcy, remained profitable, and grown like crazy!