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How to Avoid Excessive Airline Fees While Traveling

This article was written by in Travel. 23 comments.


My recent experiences traveling across country gave me more appreciation, or disapproval, of the lengths airlines are now gong to empty the wallets of travelers. The flight industry once positioned itself as luxury travel, with a variety of free amenities, but the industry takes the opposite approach now.

Yes, it is true that airlines compete mostly on airfare. I understand companies need to recover the cost of airport real estate and fuel in other ways. The airlines find it easy to hide the many varieties of fees. Travelers who are rushed — and the security process ensures more people will feel rushed — are more willing to pay for something rather than argue or look for other options. Additionally, it seems like every month an airline decides to begin charging for something that has traditionally been free.

Here are some ways to avoid getting nickel-and-dimed by the airlines.

1. Bring your own food. While you can’t bring much liquid through security, you can bring food with you from outside the airport. Once you enter the airport, the food you will find in the restaurants and shops will be over-priced. If you wait until you are on the plane, not only will the options be more expensive, there will be fewer options. Make something at home, add some snacks to quell your appetite, and bring an empty water bottle to fill at the fountain once you pass security.

2. Pack light. Several airlines now charge if you check a bag. Try to travel with only a carry-on bag if possible. If not, don’t let your luggage exceed the weight limits. And check in online before hand; checking a bag in person can often cost more than checking a bag online.

3. Arrive to the airport early. Leave more than enough time to proceed through security and relax at the gate before boarding time. Avoiding stress at the airport will prevent you from taking the easy way out on choices and buying things with which you can live out.

4. Bring your own pillow and blanket. If you are used to the free blanket and pillow traditionally offered for free on long flights, you’ll be disappointed to find they are not available in all cases, and when they are, often you will have to pay. If you can pack a small pillow and blanket your own in your carry-on bag or live without them, your wallet will thank you.

5. Bring your own headphones. Airlines are offering more entertainment for free. Almost every flight I’ve been on for the past two years have featured a monitor in the back of the seat in front of me with a variety of channel options. Most flights will charge you for headphones for listening to the programming, however. In almost all cases, your own headphones or iPod ear buds will work just fine. Even on Continental Airlines flights, where the audio is delivered with two mono jacks rather than one stereo jack, you can use your own headphone and experience half of the audio.

6. Bring your own entertainment. Listen to your own music or watch your own movies on your computer. While many airlines do have some free entertainment, they will want to offer you more for a fee. Even though I had access to free television shows on Delta, the better shows and movies would have cost several dollars. I stuck with the free entertainment provided by the airline as well as my own equipment.

7. Don’t use curbside check-in. If you are dropping off bags to be checked, bring them inside. Curbside check-in may save some time, but if you arrive at the airport early enough, you can save money by dropping your bags off inside the terminal.

8. Use your own internet access. With my BlackBerry, I already paid for a tethering service. While I was sitting in the terminal waiting to board my flights, I could connect the phone to my computer to access the Internet. Some airports have free WiFi now, but not many. If you want to access the Internet while waiting, you may have to pay a fee to access a proprietary Wifi network. Better yet, if your life and work don’t involve constantly being online, try to avoid the Internet completely while traveling.

9. Don’t be picky about your seat selection. I have found that more airlines are charging for reserving an exit row or bulkhead seat in advance, if they allow the practice at all. Thanks to SeatGuru, it’s easy to find the best seats on any airplane, and the airlines want to charge premiums now that everyone wants the best seats. If you would be comfortable wherever they place you, don’t pay any extra money for better placement.

10. Complain to Congress. If Congress was able to force credit card companies to stop their anti-consumer policies of over-charging and double-charging, perhaps they would have some luck with the airline industry as well. Keep in mind, when one door closes another one usually opens; companies usually find a way to get around restrictions and continue making life difficult for customers to protect the bottom line and shareholders.

What other airline fees have you discovered and how do you avoid them?

Photo credits: paalia, georgeparrilla

Updated January 16, 2010 and originally published November 9, 2009. If you enjoyed this article, subscribe to the RSS feed or receive daily emails. Follow @ConsumerismComm on Twitter and visit our Facebook page for more updates.

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About the author

Luke Landes, also known as Flexo, is the founder of Consumerism Commentary. He has been blogging and writing for the internet since 1995 and has been building online communities since 1991. Find out more about him and follow Luke Landes on Twitter. View all articles by .

{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar David

Complain to Congress? The airlines are all perpetually on the verge of bankruptcy, and you want them to cut prices even more? What would they cut from?

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avatar BDickson114

I totally agree on bringing your own food, but if you must eat, I'd actually recommend buying on the plane over buying in the terminal. You can frequently get a decent amount of varied food (cheese and crackers, fruit, etc.) for around $5–enough that it qualifies as a meal for me. Considering that the drink is free, not too shabby, particularly considering that you'll easily drop more than that on fast food in the terminal.

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avatar craig

Great tips and as someone who recently just traveled have used those myself. Depending on the airline you have different treatment but pack as light as possible. Not only that you don't have to wait for as many bags when leaving. Eat beforehand, they may not have and like you say bring a book or something cause more airlines are charging for entertainment.

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avatar Andre G.

Complain to Congress? Are you fucking kidding me?

What ever happened to the good old free market? These airlines are on the verge of bankruptcy and you want to get the government involved (on your behalf to fight the airlines)?

I hope that was a sarcastic joke. If it wasn't then let me know. I'll be unsubscribing from your RSS feed as obviously our opinions greatly differ and you're just an idiot for promoting these kinds of ideas.

Not sure if you forgot about a little document called the constitution. Read it. Doesn't say anything about Congress regulating airlines does it?

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avatar Nandan

One recent change for checked baggage fees (for Delta airlines at least) is a surcharge for checking in baggage at the airport (including ticket counter). There is no surcharge for prepaying for the same during online check in.

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avatar Luke Landes ♦127,500 (Platinum)

Yeah, Andre, there's no need to take that suggestion seriously. Even if you believe in a free market system, you can see that Congress occasionally has the will and the power to enact regulations. The Credit CARD Act is one recent example. Whether you think it was a good idea or a bad idea doesn't affect their ability to put new regulation into law. In fact Congress has regulated the airline industry a number of times in the past century.

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avatar Michele

Well if you need a drink maybe you should bring a flask with your own liquor lol. I wonder if the police will let you get through with that?

We are going to visit family for Thanksgiving. We are doing carry on, I am rolling the clothes and bringing as little as possible. If I do some really big shopping (Black Friday) I will have it shipped by the US Postal Service.

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avatar guinness416

You might like this story from Ireland a few months ago flexo.

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avatar guinness416

You might like this story from Ireland a few months ago flexo.

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avatar Luke Landes ♦127,500 (Platinum)

I don’t think cutting prices is the answer. The airlines are already slashing prices on fares and probably only partially making back the cuts in these petty fees here and there. What I don’t like is being nickel-and-dimed; I’d rather have higher fare prices without the fees for all but breathing airplane air, but I understand why airlines have a need to cut fare prices — it’s basically the only thing most customers look for when booking flights.

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avatar Luke Landes ♦127,500 (Platinum)

I don't think cutting prices is the answer. The airlines are already slashing prices on fares and probably only partially making back the cuts in these petty fees here and there. What I don't like is being nickel-and-dimed; I'd rather have higher fare prices without the fees for all but breathing airplane air, but I understand why airlines have a need to cut fare prices — it's basically the only thing most customers look for when booking flights.

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avatar Luke Landes ♦127,500 (Platinum)

Yes, when I flew Delta recently, I paid $15 for checking a bag from home on the flight out and I paid $20 for checking a bag at the terminal (curbside, plus $4 mandatory tip) on the flight back. I remember when the fees were $0 and $0 respectively, and that was recently.

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avatar Luke Landes ♦127,500 (Platinum)

Yes, when I flew Delta recently, I paid $15 for checking a bag from home on the flight out and I paid $20 for checking a bag at the terminal (curbside, plus $4 mandatory tip) on the flight back. I remember when the fees were $0 and $0 respectively, and that was recently.

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avatar Luke Landes ♦127,500 (Platinum)

Yeah, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the “privilege” of using the restroom listed on an airline fee schedule one of these days.

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avatar Luke Landes ♦127,500 (Platinum)

Yeah, I wouldn't be surprised to see the “privilege” of using the restroom listed on an airline fee schedule one of these days.

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avatar M-D November

The flask wouldn’t pass TSA muster if it’s more than 3oz. Although you could conceivably buy the 3oz cosmetic bottles from the supermarket or drug store and fill them with your spirit of choice.

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avatar M-D November

The flask wouldn't pass TSA muster if it's more than 3oz. Although you could conceivably buy the 3oz cosmetic bottles from the supermarket or drug store and fill them with your spirit of choice.

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avatar M-D November

The problem is that in looking for low FARES, consumers aren’t necessarily taking the extra FEES into account. Look at RyanAir (http://www.ryanair.com/site/EN/faqs.php?sect=CHARGES) as an example: There’s a fee for checking in online, and there’s a fee for checking in at the airport. (Yes, you read that right.) There’s a fee on EVERY bag you check, including infant strollers and the like. There’s a fee for paying for your ticket with certain credit cards. And their CEO has half-seriously talked about putting a coin slot on the lavatory doors. By the time you’ve actually boarded your flight, the cost of their ‘low-cost’ ticket has doubled – sometimes tripled. But with low-cost carriers (particularly non-US LCCs), you get what you pay for.

Legacy carriers nickel & diming is a whole other story. IMHO, legacy carriers have no business charging for a 1st checked bag, let alone seat assignments or soft drinks just to recoup losses based on lousy fuel hedges.

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avatar M-D November

The problem is that in looking for low FARES, consumers aren't necessarily taking the extra FEES into account. Look at RyanAir (http://www.ryanair.com/site/EN/faqs.php?sect=CH...) as an example: There's a fee for checking in online, and there's a fee for checking in at the airport. (Yes, you read that right.) There's a fee on EVERY bag you check, including infant strollers and the like. There's a fee for paying for your ticket with certain credit cards. And their CEO has half-seriously talked about putting a coin slot on the lavatory doors. By the time you've actually boarded your flight, the cost of their 'low-cost' ticket has doubled – sometimes tripled. But with low-cost carriers (particularly non-US LCCs), you get what you pay for.

Legacy carriers nickel & diming is a whole other story. IMHO, legacy carriers have no business charging for a 1st checked bag, let alone seat assignments or soft drinks just to recoup losses based on lousy fuel hedges.

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avatar M-D November

Depends on the airline. I’ve read that United has pretty good snack/meal options for sale. Contrast that with Continental – sure, the meals are free, but in many cases they’re inedible, even in First Class. And remember too that some carriers actually charge for soft drinks, making a stop in the terminal a necessity.

The trouble with bringing your own food in today’s era of security theater is that you have to be very careful about what you bring. Solid food like a sandwich or a granola bar will probably pass security without an issue, but TSA will stop ANY liquid – even if it’s part of a meal. (Don’t laugh – pre-9/11 I saw people come on airplanes with full three-course meals in tupperware.) I’ve found that most larger airports offer a decent selection of food options – and many airports have established price-competitveness policies to keep people spending in-terminal. Sure, they’re not always the healthiest options, but it’s good in a pinch.

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avatar M-D November

Depends on the airline. I've read that United has pretty good snack/meal options for sale. Contrast that with Continental – sure, the meals are free, but in many cases they're inedible, even in First Class. And remember too that some carriers actually charge for soft drinks, making a stop in the terminal a necessity.

The trouble with bringing your own food in today's era of security theater is that you have to be very careful about what you bring. Solid food like a sandwich or a granola bar will probably pass security without an issue, but TSA will stop ANY liquid – even if it's part of a meal. (Don't laugh – pre-9/11 I saw people come on airplanes with full three-course meals in tupperware.) I've found that most larger airports offer a decent selection of food options – and many airports have established price-competitveness policies to keep people spending in-terminal. Sure, they're not always the healthiest options, but it's good in a pinch.

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avatar M-D November

The baggage fees are also a ploy by the airlines to keep you loyal – stay loyal, earn elite status; earn status and you don’t have to pay checked bag fees. (Although in many cases you can also bypass the baggage fees if you hold an airline’s credit card.)

Packing light and sticking to a carry-on isn’t always the solution, sadly. You run the risk of your roll-aboard not fitting in the overhead (common among regional jets and the center section overheads on some widebodies) or having to gate-check your bag due to lack of overhead space if you don’t have boarding priority. Plus there’s the TSA to contend with – you have to make sure any cosmetics/toiletries you take on board are less than 3oz, and all your liquids/gels must fit in a single quart-sized ziploc bag. For some folks, that’s a dealbreaker.

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avatar M-D November

The baggage fees are also a ploy by the airlines to keep you loyal – stay loyal, earn elite status; earn status and you don't have to pay checked bag fees. (Although in many cases you can also bypass the baggage fees if you hold an airline's credit card.)

Packing light and sticking to a carry-on isn't always the solution, sadly. You run the risk of your roll-aboard not fitting in the overhead (common among regional jets and the center section overheads on some widebodies) or having to gate-check your bag due to lack of overhead space if you don't have boarding priority. Plus there's the TSA to contend with – you have to make sure any cosmetics/toiletries you take on board are less than 3oz, and all your liquids/gels must fit in a single quart-sized ziploc bag. For some folks, that's a dealbreaker.

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