I recently booked an airline ticket to New York. When it was time to pay, I was literally bombarded with a host of additional so-called "options" —all of which required extra fees. For instance, there was the option of purchasing a seat upgrade. This fee strategy quickly became transparent when I realized all the free seats had apparently already been selected. The only seats left were fee upgrades. I could also pay an extra fee if I wanted to bring luggage (who doesn't when they travel overnight), check in as an early bird or get my money back in the event a lengthy list of "Acts of God" prevented me and my flight from connecting. After adding up all these extras, I noticed my previously value-priced ticket was now starting to look suspiciously like a first-class fare. Hmmm. So I decided to do some online sleuthing to discover where I could find some "wiggle room" on fees—and where I could avoid fees altogether.

1. Baggage fees

It’s no use buying a ticket on the cheap if you pay just as much to check your bags. There are a few ways around this fee. First, if it qualifies, you can try to carry your bag on. If you get all the way to the terminal and it won't fit, the airline will typically check it at the door for no charge, but be sure you check the policy online since some airlines have recently become stricter about enforcing fees, no matter what.

If your bag is too big or too heavy for you to cope with carrying it on, you can often save $5-$10 per checked bag fee by purchasing your check-in vouchers online in advance (this is often offered as an option during your ticket purchase). Also, be aware before you pay for your ticket that different airlines charge different bag fees. Here are some examples ranging from the reasonable to the criminal:

  • Southwest Airlines includes bag fees in the price of the ticket.
  • Jet Blue Airlines offers the first checked bag for free.
  • Spirit Airlines charges $100 for carry-on bags when you wait to check at the gate (prices range from $26 – $50 when purchased anytime before your trip).

2. Seat fees

Unless you think you’ll be so uncomfortable in a middle seat that you simply must pay for an upgrade, be aware that most middle seats are still free no matter which airline you fly on. In contrast, check out what some airlines charge for "premium" aisle and window seats:

  • Virgin Airlines charges $39 – $159 for “Main Cabin Select” seats.
  • American Airlines prices its "Main Cabin Extra" seats starting at $8.
  • Frontier Airlines has several programs starting at $15 per upgrade.

3. Travel insurance

Most airlines now offer this optional coverage, which claims to safeguard you against delays or cancellations. But be SURE to read the fine print. In most cases, this is just another thinly veiled and very restrictive plot by the airlines to earn some extra cash at your expense. Also, travel insurance typically has a maximum payout. For instance, $3,000 for domestic travel or $500 for lost baggage. Here are some examples of what airlines are charging for travel insurance:

  • United Airlines' Trip Protector insurance starts at $19.60 per roundtrip.
  • Spirit Airlines' Travel Guard insurance is $14 for domestic and $21 for international trips.
  • British Airways' Travel Guard program starts at $25 per trip.

A note about third-party airfare vendors

If you plan to purchase your ticket through a third-party airfare vendor such as Expedia, Travelocity or Orbitz, be even more mindful about taxes, fees and travel cancellation or change policies. Often it can be especially challenging to navigate delays, missed connections, cancellations or a change in plans when you must use the third party's travel agency instead of being able to call the airline directly.

This isn’t to say that you can't sometimes get a better fare through these vendors. But just be sure you pay extra-close attention to fees, restrictions and refund limitations before assuming the price the third party vendor is offering is better than the total price you’d pay by visiting the airline's website directly.


For similar articles, read:

9 Ways to Save on Summer Airfare

How to Fly for Free: Volunteer for a Later Flight

Movin’ on Up: How to Upgrade Your Flight on a Budget


3 Airline Fees You Should Never Pay