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?
Updated January 16, 2010 and originally published November 9, 2009.