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TPG reader Hillary sent me a message on Facebook to ask about airline fees:
“Which airlines nickel-and-dime you the most on fees? I vote United, but I’d like to hear your take.”
Airline fees have skyrocketed over the past few years, ranging from relatively mundane charges like baggage fees to truly ridiculous add-ons like the fee just to sign up for the Qantas Frequent Flyer program. These fees have become a significant revenue stream for airlines, and while you’ll occasionally see them dropped (like Delta’s phone booking fee), I don’t think they’re likely to go away in general. Still, some carriers gouge passengers more than others, and I’m always happy to shame the worst offenders.
Hillary’s question singles out United, but other than a brutal award cancellation fee of $200 per ticket, the airline’s fees are generally in line with those of other major carriers. As you can see in this useful chart of airline fees, most of the charges United imposes have become pretty standard in the industry, so I wouldn’t characterize the airline as being a nickel-and-dime operation.
I think the most irritating and unexpected fees tend to come from low-cost carriers like Allegiant, Frontier and others both domestically and abroad. Long-time readers will know that I have no love for Ryanair, but Spirit Airlines gets my vote as being the worst — and based on this year’s report from the American Customer Satisfaction Index, that’s a popular opinion. Spirit is like the Domino’s Pizza of airlines, reveling in its terribleness and trying its best to make bad service seem charming. Unfortunately, there’s no charm in getting slapped with a $100 fee for a carry-on bag at the gate.
On the bright side, while most airlines are profiting enormously from these extra charges, some have made hay out of not charging fees. Southwest famously doesn’t charge passengers for the first two checked bags, and doesn’t impose fees for changes or cancellations (including awards). Other airlines have kept fees off the table in select situations, like American’s policy of allowing free award changes so long as the origin and destination remain the same.
There are plenty of strategies you can use to avoid fees or at least minimize their impact. For starters, several popular rewards credit cards offer annual airline credits, which you can use to cover fees (or airfare in some cases). Many airlines also waive fees for passengers with elite status, and there are plenty of shortcuts to earning those benefits that can help you save money.
In general, the best strategy for avoiding airline fees is to know the rules for each carrier. Even Spirit offers pretty good deals if you’re willing to pack light, sit where you’re told and print your boarding pass ahead of time. I think fees hurt more when you don’t expect them, so before you try out an unfamiliar airline, make sure you know what you’re getting into.
For more info on avoiding airline fees, check out these posts:
- How to Avoid Airline Change and Cancellation Fees
- 9 Tips to Save on Baggage Fees
- Which Frequent Flyer Programs Charge Award Booking Fees?
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