This post contains references to products from one or more of our advertisers. We may receive compensation when you click on links to those products. For an explanation of our Advertising Policy, visit this page.
Update: The offer mentioned below for the Platinum Card from American Express has expired. View the current offer here.
Although the flying public seems to have accustomed itself to more and more airline fees in the past few years for everything from checking a bag to choosing a window seat, there are still some ridiculous, and ridiculously priced, airline fees out there that contribute to making flying the stressful, expensive, unpleasant experience it can sometimes be. Here are some of the worst offenders.
1. Fuel Charges: One of the most frustrating parts of earning the miles required for the award you want is going to book it and finding out you’ll have to pay hundreds or even thousands of dollars in taxes and fuel surcharges on top of those hard-earned miles, especially because they can be hard to predict. Luckily, many US-based carriers do not charge excessive taxes and fees, or if they do so, it tends to be to certain destinations or on certain partners – such as if you’re using American Airlines miles to fly British Airways to London, or if you are using Delta miles for an award itinerary that originates outside the US. However, there are some truly awful offenders in this category including British Airways and Virgin Atlantic, both of which charge fees on flights to/from London that can outweigh buying the actual ticket. Boston to London on British Airways will set you back $683 in taxes/fees for an economy class roundtrip! A recent Virgin Atlantic NYC-Johannesburg roundtrip would have cost me over $1,500 in fees! Although Flying Blue, the program of Air France and KLM just reduced some of their carrier-imposed charges, they are still in the hundreds of dollars in each direction on many itineraries. In Star Alliance, ANA’s Mileage Club and Singapore’s KrisFlyer programs often levy huge surcharges on award tickets as well (you can check out my series on ANA surcharges here).
2. Seat Selection: It’s become a fact of flying life that if you want a decent seat – even just a regular old aisle or window in economy that’s assigned ahead of time – you’re going to end up paying extra for it, anywhere from $8 up to hundreds of dollars depending on the airline and route. British Airways is one of the worst offenders here as well, charging customers between 10 GBP ($16) and 60 GBP ($96) just to get a seat assignment outside the 24-hour check-in window- even if you are in business or first class! That makes it especially difficult for families flying to be sure they’ll get seats together, let alone other travelers who just don’t want to get stuck in the middle for a long-haul flight. For tips and strategies on ways to get a better economy seat, check out this post.
3. American Airlines Same Day Confirmed Fees: If you arrive early for your flight, and there is an earlier flight with seats available on it, it makes a lot of sense that the airline should allow you to switch to the new flight for free, right? Not so fast! American charges $75 for confirmed same day flight changes. For everyone, no matter what their elite level- even for top tier Executive Platinum members. However, the airline will let AAdvantage elite members the option to standby for a different flight at no charge. At least with American you can avoid these fees by purchasing one of their Choice Plus Fares that bundle unlimited same day confirmed charges into a single fee with other benefits.
Delta has a Same Day Confirm fee of $50 to change your flight time on the same day of travel, however, it waives this fee for Gold, Platinum, and Diamond Medallions. United allows same-day flight changes for $75, but Premier Gold, Premier Platinum and Premier 1K members are exempt. US Airways has their MoveUp program allowing fliers to switch to a flight within 6 hours of their original flight for $75. They are the most generous with waiving this for elite members, as all elites including Silvers are exempt from that fee. So the general rule here is having mid- to top-tier elite status might save you from these fees. On the other hand, Southwest doesn’t have same day confirmed fees, but it will charge you the difference in fares between the ticket you bought and the fare that day. In some cases, that works out fine, but in others, paying to change could be exorbitant. JetBlue charges a flat $50 fee, while Virgin America charges between $25-50 depending on the length of your flight.
4. Spirit Airlines Carry On Bag Fees: Although Spirit Airlines has made a name for itself with deeply reduced prices on popular routes, one of the reasons it’s able to advertise cut-rate prices is that it charges for practically every amenity and convenience possible including what is possibly the most infamous ridiculous airline fee out there, a charge for bringing a carry on bag, which will cost you anywhere from $25-$100. Looking at the airline’s Optional Services page reveals a plethora of other charges including seat selection ranging from $1-$50 and moving up to slightly roomier seats with more legroom and no middle passenger for between $12-$150.
5. Phone Booking Fees When They Make It Impossible to Redeem Online: One of the great perks of co-branded personal Citi AAdvantage card is that cardholders have access to reduced-price domestic awards that can save you 5,000-7,500 miles depending on which card you carry per roundtrip award ticket on certain routes within the US and Canada. The one drawback is that the only way to book them is to call American Airlines AAdvantage reservations with the award code for your city pair and have them book it for you – which will cost you $25 (waived for Executive Platinums). There’s nothing like charging folks to give them a discount.
USAirways.com does not display partner airline award availability, which forces US Airways Dividend Miles members who want to use their miles for a partner award to call the award booking desk. That, in turn, incurs a $25 booking fee. So not only is US Airways’ website severely limited, but the airline charges its frequent flyers more because of it! If you’re not a top-tier Chairman’s Preferred elite with the airline, you’ll end up paying $30-$40 depending on the award plus a $25-$50 award processing fee (at least that’s waived for Gold, Platinum and Chairman’s Preferred members). As a runner up in this category, although American Airlines has gotten a lot better lately about displaying partner award availability, there are still some big holes in its online search and booking engine including Cathay Pacific and LAN, so if you want to book flights on them, you’ll have to pay their $25 award ticket phone booking fee.
6. Qantas Frequent Flyer Sign-Up Fee: I can’t think of a worse way to start off a frequent flyer program relationship than to charge people who want to become members for the privilege, but that’s exactly what Qantas does to Australia- and New Zealand-based flyers who want to join its Frequent Flyer club. It charges Australians $82.50 AUD and New Zealanders $50 NZD. Members from other countries can sign up for free, at least.
7. Ryanair’s Insane Boarding Pass Printing Charges: I flew Ryanair last year from Dublin to Edinburgh, and it was one of the worst travel experiences I’ve ever had. I tried to check in for my flight at the check-in counter, but the agent informed us that she couldn’t even check us in and that we’d have to go to the manual ticketing counter and figure it out with them, since I didn’t check-in online prior to arriving at the airport. Once at the desk, the agents informed us it would be an astonishing £60 ($96) per boarding pass to print, and they would only accept cash! Why they charge such a hefty fee to print a boarding pass is beyond me. Even worse, according to their table of fees, this fee was just raised to £70 ($110), so make sure to check in online and save yourself a big pile of cash.
8. Close-In Booking Fees: Several airlines charge for booking award tickets under 21 days. For example, American, United and US Airways charge a $75 fee if booking an award within 21 days of travel. However, US Airways will waive the award-processing fee and the quick-ticketing fee for tickets booked using miles from Gold, Platinum and Chairman’s Preferred accounts. On United, the $75 fee goes down to $50 for Premier Silver and $25 for Premier Gold. There is no fee for United Premier Platinum, Premier 1K or Global Services customers. American charges $75 for awards booked within 21 days but waives it for all elite members using miles from their account. Delta is the only legacy airline that has done away with this fee completely.
9. United’s Annual Economy Plus Subscription: United offers flyers an annual membership for Economy Plus, its roomier economy seating section, with an annual fee of $499 not including a $50 initiation fee (though currently waived). Flyers who partake in this offer will be able to select Economy Plus seats on all flights only within the continental United States (excluding Hawaii and Alaska). If you want to extend this benefit for North and Central America it is $599 and if you’d like to be able to take advantage of this globally it’s a whopping $699 per year. The reason this fee is ridiculous is because if you are flying so much to justify needing it, you are most likely a Premier member of the airline’s mileage program, and Premier Golds, Platinums, and 1K’s can select complimentary Economy Plus at booking while Premier Silvers can choose these seats for free at check-in domestically.
10. International Lap Child Fee: We discussed infant award fees in depth in the past, but basically everyone who is traveling internationally must have a ticket and a passport, including babies. Typically, airlines will charge the 10% of their highest, unrestricted fare for the ticket of a lap child plus full taxes and fees although some airlines claim to offer infant fares at 10% of the entire ticket price, which means even though a lap child is taking up no seat or more room, parents are still paying sometimes hefty airfares to fly with their little ones. The best way to avoid this fee is to choose Alaska, Airtran, JetBlue, Virgin America and Frontier, which do not charge any infant fares but only taxes and fees. The Miles and More program operated by Lufthansa, Austrian, and Swiss is alone among the major international programs in that it does not charge infant fares on awards, however you do have to watch out for sometimes huge fuel surcharges on regular and award tickets.
Tips for paying for these fees when you can’t avoid them: The American Express Platinum card reimburses up to $200 a year in airline fees (not all are reimburseable, so check this post to see what might qualify). The BarclayCard Arrival will also allow you to redeem points for travel expenses (including airline fees) at a rate of 1 cent per point plus a 10% rebate- so the current 40,000 point sign-up bonus would cover over $440 in fees, which could take the sting out of your travel expenses.