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The Seven ‘Deadly’ Airline Fees

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Baggage, food, pillows, and more—it seems no airfare transaction is fee-free nowadays. While fees may be here to stay, some are certainly more egregious than others. As we start planning our travels for 2011, let’s revisit the “deadliest” fees in the airline industry, but this time with a twist. We’ve paralleled each of the seven deadly sins with its most appropriate airline fee counterpart—and, of course, we have a few recommendations on how you can avoid paying them, too.



How best to describe “lust” in terms of an airline fee? At SmarterTravel, we think charging a fee just to choose your seat fits the bill. Why? Purchasing your seat is the most essential transaction of air travel, yet too many carriers (specifically, Air Canada, AirTran, Allegiant, Continental, Spirit, and US Airways) lust after just a little bit more of your money for allowing you the “privilege” of selecting your own seat. It’s like purchasing a shirt, but then having to pay more to select its color.

The costs aren’t insignificant, either. In some cases you can get charged up to $20 per flight. Additionally, the fact that seat-selection fees have not been adopted industry-wide further exhibits the desperation of the aforementioned airlines, lusting after whatever extra revenue they can squeeze from the flying public.

To avoid paying a seat-selection fee, limit your business to those airlines that don’t penalize you for choosing your seat in advance. You can find a full round-up of airline fees in our always-updated Airline Fees: The Ultimate Guide.


Fuel surcharges for frequent flyer award seats, particularly from British Airways, gets the win for gluttony. Senior Editor Christine Sarkis notes that British Airways’ fuel surcharges are “over the top,” especially in regard to redeeming frequent flyer miles. Sarkis paid more than $400 in fees and taxes for an award ticket, a hefty price for a “free” seat; and frequent flyer expert Tim Winship recently offered advice to a reader expecting to pay more than $700 in British Airways award redemption fees. With your loyal business and participation in British Airways’ frequent flyer program, you’ve done your part. Why the extra fees? With the true definition of gluttony, it seems British Airways just wants more, more, more.

Before you book an award ticket (or better yet, before you choose which loyalty program to join), familiarize yourself with SmarterTravel’s Frequent Flyer Fees: The Ultimate Guide. Currently focusing on domestic travel, this guide offers a quick and handy resource to all the fees associated with award travel, from booking a reward seat to reactivating your miles. This way, you’ll know exactly which airlines charge fees for the services and transactions you’d most expect to use. Don’t see your airline listed there? Visit your preferred carrier’s website and search for its frequent flyer program policies, as well as FAQs. After all, just because an airline is gluttonous doesn’t mean you have to feed its habit.


Carl Unger, our Today in Travel blogger, loathed American’s Your Choice/Express Seats fee so much that we ultimately deemed it the Worst Fee of the Year for 2010. Starting at $19, the fee enables you to board coach a few minutes before non-fee-paying customers, with no other perks. A true act of greed on American’s part, this fee offers no real value; some may call it a pure money grab.

To avoid this fee, take your chances and simply forgo it. By doing so, you’ll have to board with the rest of the crowd, but most of us do that anyway and live to tell the tale. Sure, your carry-on bag may not make the bin that’s directly overhead, or you may have to stow something extra under your seat. But to still have $20 in your pocket, the “inconvenience” of walking a few paces to an adjacent overhead bin or leaning down to grab your bag may not seem so steep.


Two airlines, Ryanair and Spirit, share “sloth” status. With most ticket purchases, travelers are guaranteed a boarding pass. Not so on Ryanair: You’ll pay £5 to check in online or £40 to get your boarding pass at the airport. Spirit, on the other hand, tacks on a $5 fee for booking a ticket both over the phone or online. Basically, if you book a ticket from your home or office, and not in person at the airport, you’ll pay for it. And come on—when was the last time you bought your ticket at the airport? Spirit is banking on the fact that you, like most other travelers, tend to avoid the airport except on your actual travel days. In true slovenly fashion, both Ryanair’s and Spirit’s laziness put the onus on you, the travelers, for your own transactions—and then, with the fees, require you to pay extra to do so, too.

With most airlines, choose online transactions to save yourself booking and related fees. Ryanair, however, should be avoided entirely (as you can’t even get a boarding pass without a fee). If you like Spirit, outsmart their phone- and online-booking fees by purchasing your tickets in person at the airport.


It’s pretty mean-spirited to charge a fee for any type of bag you take along. But that’s exactly what Spirit has done by charging fees for virtually every type of baggage, from carry-ons stowed in the overhead bins to checked suitcases. Columnist Ed Perkins called Spirit’s carry-on bag fees a new low for the airline, remarkable for the fact that the ultra-low-cost carrier isn’t exactly known for customer-friendly policies to start. Adopted in early 2010, this fee seems to be here to stay, as pushback from both travelers and the press did little to curb Spirit’s wrathful ways.

If you do still plan on flying Spirit, make sure your baggage can fit under the seat in front of you—a purse, knapsack, or small duffel may fit the bill. It may also cost less to ship your bags ahead of you. A handful of new services cater to budget travelers, and you may find their prices undercut Spirit’s fees. Of course, you can avoid baggage fees entirely by flying with Southwest (first two checked bags free) or JetBlue (first checked bag free).


Finding the best fee for the “envy” category was a no-brainer: Back in 2008, when American announced it would start charging for all checked bags, they soon became the envy of most other airlines. In response, nearly every major carrier quickly jumped on the checked-bag-fee bandwagon. Worse yet, once the other airlines decided this was a great idea, the actual price tag for the fee jumped, too: First-checked-bags started out around $15; nowadays, you’re likely to pay around $25 apiece for your first- and second-checked bag. The bottom line? Take two people traveling together, each with a checked bag, on a round-trip flight, and you’re adding an extra $100 to your travel costs.

As we mentioned earlier, to avoid baggage fees, choose Southwest or JetBlue when service is available. Or, with the exception of Spirit, try to limit your baggage to a carry-on. You may also want to put in some legwork on your hotel search: Several brands, such as Kimpton and InterContinental Hotels Group, offer luggage-reimbursement programs when you book a minimum-night stay.


Perhaps you’ve seen Southwest’s latest ad campaign, which uses a courtroom setting to scrutinize other airlines’ ticket change fees. It’s a direct challenge to the competition, as well as an effective tool to position Southwest as a friendly, no nickel-and-diming airline. Yet the other airlines’ response has been, fittingly … no change at all. Indeed, one could say the other airlines are too proud to rescind any fees. So if you’re planning to purchase an air ticket, you know that with most airlines, if you need to change your itinerary, you’re going to get socked with a pricey penalty.

If you want flexibility for an upcoming trip and don’t want to pay to change your ticket, you have a few (limited) options. One is to fly Southwest, the only airline that doesn’t charge any ticket change fees. Another is waiting to book until the last minute, when you’re certain of your plans. (This carries additional risk, though, as a last-minute fare may not always be the most affordable.) Alternatively, you could book the highest-class ticket, where typically itinerary changes don’t incur a fee, although the price of such a ticket may be higher than what you’d pay in fees. Lastly, you could investigate travel insurance options, where your investment is covered in case you need to change plans or cancel. A bit of extra work, in this case, can at least help you work around the costly fee.

Your Turn

What do you think of our list? Which fees do you currently consider the “deadliest?” Share your thoughts by submitting a comment below!

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