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Travel Tuesday Top 10: Dreaded Airline Fees and How to Avoid Them

Oct. 23, 2012
15 min read
Travel Tuesday Top 10: Dreaded Airline Fees and How to Avoid Them
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For today's Travel Tuesday Top 10, we take a look at some the most dreaded fees airlines tack onto the flying experience for everything from changing tickets to checking bags, and how you can get out of them:

Most airlines will charge $25 for the first checked bag.

1. Checked Baggage Fees: Although they're not the most expensive, the fees most of us have to pay to check luggage is one of the most pervasive and annoying aspects of traveling today. Most of the legacy airlines charge for checked baggage which can easily be $25 for the first bag. The good news is this is a relatively easy fee to get out of. Elite status (even the lowest tier) will waive at the first checked bag, and then higher-level elites will get two or even three checked bags free. The other way is to avoid paying is by having an airline's co-branded credit card since many will waive the first checked bag fee as well. On Delta, the Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express, Platinum Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express, and Delta Reserve® Credit Card from American Express allow cardmembers to check their first bag for free on all Delta and Delta Connection flights and the benefit applies to up to 9 people traveling in the cardmember’s reservation. Having the United MileagePlus Explorer Card means your first checked bag is free for you and a companion when you fly United, and if you opt for the United MileagePlus Club Card, you get two free checked bags each time. Among other cards that offer this benefit, the Citi Platinum Select AAdvantage card provides a free checked bag on American Airlines for the cardholder and up to four travel companions. Without a credit card or elite status, Southwest allows all passengers to check 2 free checked bags, and JetBlue gives each passenger their first bag free - so if this is a primary concern for you when traveling, be sure to check fares on those two carriers in particular.

2. Change/Cancellation Fees: Most airlines charge a whopping $150 fee to make even the slightest change to tickets - which is sometimes more than the cost of the ticket itself! However, savvy travelers are sometimes able to avoid this a few different ways. First, if you need to change or cancel, be a bit of a risk taker and see if the airline makes a schedule change, which most airlines do. Even if the change is seemingly insignificant- only a couple minutes, it never hurts to call and ask for a refund. I once booked a flight 7 months out, and it had 5 schedule changes before the departure date. If you see your itinerary has changed, call up the airline and see if they will switch you to the flights you want, or if there are no options that work, then see if they will cancel and refund your fare. Most are willing to do so. Even if there aren't change fees, sometimes you can still ask for a refund like I wrote about My Experience Getting Out of Delta Flight Change Fees, where you can go online and fill out a refund request form. I had no real reason for my refund, yet lo and behold they refunded my fare to my credit card with no fee. Southwest doesn't charge any change fees, but they do charge the fare difference, so that's another option to keep in mind.

United's Economy Plus Seats.

3. Premium Seating Fees: Most airlines can get away with charging for preferred seats - up to over $100 depending on the distance of the flight - and even for advance seat selection so your entire travel party can end up sitting together. There are two types of preferred seats, the standard ones such at the exit rows, or aisle and window seats toward the front, and there are also seats that offer more recline or legroom like Delta's Economy Comfort Seats and United's Economy Plus seats. Having elite status on certain airlines will make these seating options available for you at no charge. On Delta for instance, Gold, Platinum and Diamond Medallion members can choose Economy Comfort seats domestically when booking, and Silvers can choose them for free at check-in. United offers Economy Plus to Premier Platinum, 1K's and Global Services members for themselves and up to eight companions, Premier Gold members may have one companion, and Premier Silver members are eligible to choose these seats at check-in. If you have elite status, and are traveling with a companion who doesn't, if you call up the airline, they will usually move your companion into a preferred seat, so you can sit together. I've even called the elite line at Delta and asked them to put a friend in the exit row and they did so free of charge as a courtesy to me and to thank me for my business- once again, it never hurts to ask. Members of Virgin America's new elite status program will be able to select "Main Cabin Express" seats in rows instead of paying the $20 fee other flyers are subject to. However, for those without elite status and hoping for a better seat, one option is not to choose any seat when you make the reservation. Let's say you book a flight next week, and all that is left are a few middle seats in the back, but all the preferred seats are open, when it comes down to it, the gate agent at the airport will be filling all those seats, so there is a very good chance, you will be assigned a preferred seat. Especially if you ask nicely. Other airlines open up premium seats 24 hours before a flight and remember- elite members are often upgrading in the final minutes of boarding and when they get the upgrade, their premium seat becomes available. If you want to take it a step further, this Lifehacker article explains a method of manipulating website code to force a premium seat, though I'm honestly skeptical whether this works, but its an entertaining read nonetheless.

4. Phone Ticketing Fees: Airlines are encouraging more and more passengers to book their flights online, but often their third-rate websites force you to call to book a flight. Having elite status will usually waive the phone booking fees or direct booking fees. However, not all airlines are the same. For instance, United will waive these fees for Platinum and 1K members, Delta waives it for Gold, Platinum and Diamond Medallions, while American only waives it for Executive Platinums. Take a look to see which level of your airline does. Another tactic to get the phone booking fee waived is when you can't book what you want online. Let's say you try to book an award ticket on a partner airline online, and the website isn't displaying any of the partner's airline inventory, calling up the airline and saying that you are unable to book online will usually result in a phone fee waiver. Keep calling back until you find an agent who will grant you one. Another way to get around it is by speaking to online support when you have booking problems. Often these agents can make the reservation for you and won't charge you the booking fee because its classified as an IT error.

5. Award Redeposit Fees: Similar to the change/cancellation fees, many airlines will charge you if you want to redeposit an award ticket - sometimes upwards of $100. While United and American both allow changes to the award as long as the origin and destination are the same, Delta and US Airways do not. In order to cancel an award and redeposit the miles, you will be dinged with a hefty award deposit fee - usually $150. If you need to cancel, wait to see if there might be a schedule change and see if they will waive the fee in that case. Having elite status is best way to get around this fee. Delta gives Platinum and Diamond Medallion members unlimited award redeposits as long as they are made 72 hours before departure. United waives the fee for Premier Platinums, 1K's and Global Service customers. Premier Silvers and Gold receive a discounted award redeposit fee of $125 and $100 respectively. American waives AAdvantage award change and reinstatement charges for Executive Platinums while US Airways will waive the mileage redeposit fee of $150 for totally unused award tickets for Chairman's Preferred-level members. Even you have an American or United award, try changing your flight to a time that's known for terrible weather- if a weather waiver is issued, your miles will be given back for free.

The American Airlines Admirals Club is included in the American Express Platinum Card list.

6. Airline Lounge Fees: Airport lounges such as Delta's Sky Clubs, United Club's, Admirals Club's and so on can be great places to spend some time before a flight. Having access provides a quiet spot where you can get some work done, have a few drinks, get on the internet, and if you need flight assistance, the agents are usually great with rebooking options. However joining an airline lounge club isn't cheap, they usually start at $450 and if you want a one-day pass that will often run you $50 bucks. However many credit cards provide lounge access. My personal favorite is The Platinum Card® from American Express which offers access to American, Delta and US Airways lounges plus a host of others through the Priority Pass Select partnership. Other cards like the Delta Reserve Card provide cardholders complimentary full access. On United, the United Club Card allows cardholders and a travel companion access to the United Club, and access to the airline’s 50+ lounges, as well as affiliated Star Alliance member lounges around the world. American's Citi Executive AAdvantage Card provides full Admirals Club membership privileges for the cardholder and immediate family or up two travel companions. Also booking international first class or business class fares almost always come with access. Even certain domestic routes when flying in business class include it such as Delta's transcontinental flights from JFK to San Francisco, Los Angeles, Denver, Las Vegas, Portland, Phoenix, San Diego and Seattle.

Better mark you calendar for 21 days out, otherwise you could be faced with a close in booking fee.

7. Close in Booking Fees: Several airlines charge for booking award tickets under 21 days. For example, both 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, general members are charged $75 to book an award within 21 days, that 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 while the fees are reduced for Gold and Silver members. American charges $75 for awards booked within 21 days but waives it for AAdvantage Executive Platinum, AAdvantage Platinum and AAdvantage Gold members using miles from their account. Delta is the only legacy airline that has done away with this fee completely, so you need to book an award within three weeks, search Delta first since you won't be charged a last-minute booking fee regardless of whether you are a Medallion member or not. British Airways also does not charge close-in booking fees, so if you want a Oneworld flight last minute, it may make more sense to use Avios, even if the award does require more miles vs. American.

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8. Same Day Confirm/Standby Fees: Up next on the list is same day change fees - for example, if you want to move up to an earlier flight, or something comes up and you want to standby on a later flight. Many times, you'll arrive at the airport and see there is an earlier flight that you'd like to get on, but the airline wants to charge you a fee to switch. Delta has a Same Day Confirm fee of $50 to change your flight time on the same day of travel. Delta 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 waived from that fee. American also has same day flight changes and the cost is $75. For elite members, they offer AAdvantage elite members the option to standby for a different flight at no charge. So the general rule here is having elite status will 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. Tip: Always ask at check-in and at the gate to get on earlier flights for free. If a gate agent knows that your flight is oversold, they will gladly put you on an earlier one so their job is easier later and they may not have to have the hassle of asking for volunteers (of course if you know your flight is oversold, it might make more sense to take a later flight and take the compensation, but if your goal is to get home earlier take the free change as your compensation). Being friendly to a frazzled gate agent can work wonders.

While it's nice to have seat back entertainment, the airlines will usually charge you to watch movies.

9. On-Board Entertainment and Food/Drink Fees in Coach: It used to be that airlines served hot meals in coach - even on short flights - and everyone could get those chunky headsets to watch movies on the overhead televisions. Now you are lucky if you get a bag of peanuts with your cup of water. Delta provides their Sky Priority customers with a "Have One On Us" coupon when they print their boarding pass good for a drink or snack. American provides Executive Platinum members with a free drink and snack in coach. Delta offers cardholders of the Delta Gold Amex, Delta Platinum Amex, and Reserve Card, a 20% on-board discount. American Airlines also offers this perk to their Citi Platinum Select AAdvantage cardmembers, who receive a 25% savings (as a statement credit) on in-flight purchases of food, beverages, and headsets on flights operated by American Airlines when purchased with their card. The Amex Platinum card also offers $200 in fee rebates every year, so if you charge up in-flight costs they'll automatically get refunded up to $200 a year. If you still have funds leftover, become a celebrity on your flight and buy stuff for other people since you don't get to rollover any unused funds- though the fee rebate does sometimes work when purchasing airline gift cards, so that might be a more prudent way to maximize the benefit instead of buying others snacks. Another way to get free drink coupons is by joining corporate frequent flyer programs and using the points to order drink coupons. For example, Delta SkyBonus has a current sign-up bonus of 25,000 points when you register with code SB2012NEW and 10 drink coupons only cost 10,000 points!

10. Infant Award Ticket Fee: We discussed infant award fees in depth last month, 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 current price. The best 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 pesky fuel surcharges.