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How to avoid five sky-high airline fees

As airlines tighten their financial belts, many have begun to squeeze extra dollars out of their passengers by charging for services that used to be free. We’ve rounded up some of the most common extra fees, along with strategies to help you avoid them. If you’re not paying attention, you may be paying more than you need to.

Paper tickets

Most carriers now charge extra if you like the reassurance of having a ticket on paper, instead of using an e-ticket, which is substantially cheaper for the airline. Fees on most carriers range from $20 to $30.

Some airlines require you to pay even more, however. On May 1, American doubled the fee for paper tickets issued on domestic and international itineraries to $50, in an effort to entice its passengers to use electronic tickets. Northwest quickly followed suit.

Avoiding this charge is easy: Take the e-ticket. Not only will it save you money, there’s less chance that you’ll lose it or forget to bring it to the airport. Plus, with an e-ticket, you can save time by checking in online or at a self-service kiosk.

Changing your plans

America West, American, Continental, Delta, Northwest, United, and US Airways all charge $100 if you want to change your itinerary before you fly. Alaska charges $50, and most low-cost airlines charge $25 to $50. Southwest is currently the only major airline that doesn’t make you pay to change your ticket.

This fee is tough to avoid if you’ve already booked your trip and you need to make a change. To prevent having to pay it, make sure your plans are rock solid if you’re buying a nonrefundable fare.

Flying standby

Last year, many airlines said they would charge $100 to passengers flying standby, but later reduced or removed those fees. Now, only Delta and US Airways charge a standby fee, and they’ve dropped the price down to a more reasonable $25. On Southwest, you can expect to pay the difference between your original fare and the price of a full-fare ticket on your new flight.

To avoid paying a standby fee, don’t fly the airlines that charge one, or travel on your original itinerary.

Eating onboard

Airline food has been joked about for years, but now that many flights offer you little more than a bag of pretzels, it’s no longer a laughing matter. Some airlines have begun to charge for meals instead of giving them away.

America West, Delta, Northwest, and United are all testing food sales, either at the gate or onboard. Song sells food on all of its flights, and on July 1, US Airways will begin selling meals for $7 to $10 and stop complimentary food service on all domestic flights.

To avoid paying for food, brown bag it, or at least make sure there are snacks in your carry-on. You’ll be especially grateful for the emergency rations if you get stuck on the tarmac or in a terminal due to unexpected flight delays.

Heavy or extra baggage

Bringing extra bags onboard can quickly add to your bottom line as well. Most airlines allow you to check two bags, and carry on one bag plus a personal item such as a briefcase or a laptop. If you exceed your free baggage allowance, you can expect to pay quite a bit. Fees differ by airline, and by the number of extra bags, as shown in the table below:

Airline Extra bags 1-3 (per bag) Bags 4-6 (per bag) Bags 7+ (per bag)
Alaska, American, Continental, Northwest, US Airways $80 $105 $180
America West, United $80 $80 $80
Southwest $40 $60 $110

Delta charges $40 for the first extra bag, and then its fee structure follows American’s for all additional pieces. Remember that these fees pertain to domestic flights; fees on international flights can be higher.

Going over airline size and weight limits will also cost you. If you bring large or heavy suitcases, you can expect to pay as much as $160 per bag ($80 for overweight bags, and another $80 if they’re also oversized). As a rule of thumb, bags that weigh more than 50 pounds are considered overweight by most airlines, and anything between 62 and 80 linear inches is oversized. You’ll be asked to ship or leave behind anything bigger than 80 inches or heavier than 100 pounds.

The best way to avoid these charges is to know your airline’s baggage rules before you head to the airport. If you absolutely can’t leave anything behind, shipping with a service that specializes in luggage delivery, such as Sports Express, or with a package company like UPS or Federal Express, might be your cheapest option.

Other fees you might pay

Even if you avoid everything we’ve listed above, be aware that you might feel inclined to pay for other services on the plane. Most airlines charge nominal fees for luxuries like movie headsets, which range from $1 to $5, and for alcoholic beverages in coach. And United this week was the first airline to announce in-flight e-mail service, which will allow you to pay from $6 to $16 per flight for the privilege of staying connected while you’re up in the air.

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