If you travel a lot – as I do – you may have noticed that the skies aren't quite as friendly as they once were. It started slowly with the elimination of free meals on domestic flights, and I could live with that – the food was pretty bad anyway. But lately, the services that aren’t included in our ticket prices are snowballing out of control.
Here’s my Letterman list of the most heinous of the new fees and how you can avoid them:
- Booking fee. This one is easily avoided if you can book your ticket online, says Anne Banas, the executive editor of SmarterTravel.com. But if you want to book over the phone or in person, you’ll generally pay $15 to $25. U.S. Airways seems to be the worst offender, charging up to $35 to book by phone and up to $45 to book in person. Southwest, on the other hand, charges nothing. One thing to note: Banas says these charges are strictly for booking, not rebooking. In other words, if your flight is cancelled, you don’t pay.
- Priority boarding. This one, obviously, is easily avoided – you don’t need to get on the plane first, especially if you were able to pick your seat in advance. But what if you want to. What if you see that everyone has a roller-board and you do not want to check yours? Then you can fork over $10 to Southwest or $9.99 to Allegiant. Other carriers have “packages of perks,” according to Banas, that also include things like priority security or free standby. United, for example, has a service called Premier Line that starts at $9. The real key here is status in the frequent flyer program – gold, platinum and elite members can board, typically, with first class.
- More legroom. Want to stretch out your legs? Continental, Frontier and JetBlue are all cashing in. It will cost you between $10 and $25. American – on my most recent flight – was charging $29 for the bulkhead. Is it worth it? Personally, I don’t like the bulkhead – there’s no seat to put my bag under – but if you’re 6’2”, you might feel differently.
- Blankets or pillows. It was big news when American started charging $8 for blankets last year, but they weren’t alone – JetBlue and US Airways were already doing some version of the same. Both sell what they call a “sleep set” for $7. You’ll pay $12 for a similar thing on Virgin America, and $15 for a blanket on Allegiant. To avoid: Buy a $10 pashmina in the airport and stuff it in your bag. It’s nicer, warmer and you can have it in the color of your choice.
- WiFi. This wasn’t a concern a few years ago, because it just wasn’t offered. But if you want to get online on board, most carriers charge between $4.95 and $12.95 for the service (and some don’t offer it at all yet). One tip: In the months you’re flying heavily, if you know you’ll use it pay for the package rather than per flight. One and a half trips from coast to coast and you’ve got the full month covered.
- Checked bag fee. A charge for this is all but the norm these days, with most carriers charging between $15 and $25 for the first bag, and up to $35 for the second. If you want to avoid, fly JetBlue or Southwest.
- Ticket change fee. Most airlines will charge you $75 to $150 to change your itinerary – that’s on top of your new fare. Southwest, again, is the exception. You do, however, get a grace period, says Banas. “If you make a mistake and realize within 24 hours, most airlines will allow you to make a change without a fee. But you have to be pretty savvy and act quickly. This is something that most consumers don’t know about.”
- Seat selection. Picking your seat out in advance is now a service you may have to pay for. Fly AirTran, and you’ll pay $6 (will that go away when it’s absorbed by Southwest? We’ll see.) Spirit Airlines has a sliding scale that depends on where you’d like to sit: $20 for an exit row, $15 for the front of the plane, $12 for the middle, and $8 for the back (yes, you can pay $8 to sit next to the bathroom).
- Flying standby. This one is an outrage. “It used to be that if you were on a confirmed flight – say from Boston to Buffalo – and you knew there was an earlier flight that day, as long as you had a confirmed seat and it was the same route, they’d let you go on standby. Now they charge you for that,” says Banas. You may still be able to get on a waiting list on a full flight for free, but if you want a confirmed seat, you’ll pay between $25 and $75.
- Drum roll please. Carry on bag. You read that correctly – you just can’t win if you’re flying Spirit Airlines. They began charging $30 for a carry on bag on August 1, and that’s if you let them know in advance. A last minute addition paid for at the gate will cost you $45. In this case, you can actually save $5 by checking your bag.
Finally, a bit of advice: TruPrice.net is a pretty handy new site that helps you calculate how much your trip will end up costing, including fees for checked bags and any extra services you select. That way, you can set an accurate budget for your trip. As a small business owner myself, I know how important that is.
Jean Chatzky, award-winning journalist and best-selling author, is the financial editor for NBC's "Today," a contributing editor for More magazine, and a columnist for The New York Daily News. She is the author of six books, including her newest, Money 911: Your Most Pressing Money Questions Answered, Your Money Emergencies Solved. Check out Jean's blog at JeanChatzky.com. You can also follow her on Twitter and Facebook.
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