The real cost of ‘cheap’ flights

It’s easy enough to find the lowest airfare these days, thanks to online flight aggregator sites like Travelocity and Kayak. Still, when it comes to comparing airline add-on fees, it can be a challenge trying to figure out which hidden costs you need to plan for.

It’s not just checked luggage anymore either. Depending on the airline, you might be charged for carry-on luggage, printing a boarding pass at the airport or even asking for peanuts on your flight.

“Discount airlines may offer a lower price upfront, but they often squeeze in hidden charges that many don’t realize [they’ll pay] until after the fact,” said Holly Johnson, owner of frugal travel site Club Thrifty. And it’s not just the discounters. Even traditional full-service airlines have ramped up fees in recent years.

“To avoid these charges, you have to know what they are,” said Johnson. Here are the most common airline add-ons, so you can compare and avoid getting fleeced when you’re ready to book your next flight.

Change Fees

If you need to make a change to your tickets, the cost of those cheap airline tickets will go up — substantially. “American Airlines charges may range from $75 to $200 to change your ticket,” said Lee Huffman, who writes about travel and travel hacking on his website Bald Thoughts.

Delta, meanwhile, charges $200 for domestic flights and between $200 and $500 for international travel; Jet Blue charges anywhere from $60 to $120 based on the tier ticket you purchase; and Hawaiian Air charges between $30 and $300, plus fare difference, depending on whether you’re flying to a neighboring island, the mainland or an international destination.

To avoid or minimize this fee, it pays to know your airline’s policy. “You can avoid this fee [on American Airlines] if you buy a refundable ticket or if you hold Executive Platinum elite status with American,” said Huffman.

Alaska Air offers free flight changes, so long as they’re requested 60 days out. United offers FareLock, which, for a small fee, lets travelers hold nonrefundable airfare for up to a week. And most airlines allow for free cancellations within 24 hours of booking time.

You can also fly Southwest, which is the last hold-out U.S. airline to not charge a change fee. Another option is airline ticket insurance, which, when purchased through the airline, can protect you from absorbing the cost of a rescheduled flight — but you still have to pay for the insurance.

Baggage Fees

“Checked bag fees start at $25-$35 and can go higher if your bag is heavier than 50 pounds,” said Huffman. Fly round trip and expect to pay that fee twice.

To fly your bags for free, you’ll need to qualify for elite status on some airlines, hold a competitive travel rewards credit card or loyalty card that offers the benefit, or buy a business- or first-class ticket. Or, you can fly Southwest, which still allows ticket holders to travel with two checked bags at no additional fee.

As for carry-on bags, most major airlines still allow one per flier for free, but a growing number of discount airlines have started to charge if you want to stash a bag in the overhead compartment. The guilty culprits so far are Allegiant, Spirit and, under certain circumstances, Frontier.

Printed Boarding Passes

Prefer to print your boarding pass at the airport, instead of at home? That’s a luxury some discounters charge for. Spirit charges $10 per boarding pass, while Allegiant charges $5.

To avoid the fee, check in and print your pass at home, up to 24 hours before your flight. Allegiant also offers free mobile check-in via the Allegiant App.

Meals and Snacks

Unless flying first class, most of us no longer expect a meal when flying domestic. Still, a “standard soft drink and bag of pretzels will most likely not be included either,” said travel expert Grainne Kelly, CEO and founder of BubbleBum, the world’s first inflatable booster seat.

“Plan ahead and pack yourself plenty of snacks and other food to tide you over until you reach your destination,” she suggested. Also, “remember that you can’t bring liquids through security, so you’ll need to purchase them near your gate or onboard the flight.”

If you don’t want to pay for water, you can carry an empty bottle through security and fill it at a water fountain before boarding.

Seat Upgrades

“Most discount carriers do not offer seat assignments, but rather operate on a first-come, first-serve basis,” said Kelly. “Plan to be at the gate early to queue up for a decent seat next to your family or travel companion.”

Fly a full-service airline and you won’t have to get in line early to secure a good seat, but you might have to pay extra for one. According to travel blog The Points Guy, American charges extra for seats on the aisle, with extra leg room or closer to the front of the plane.

American is far from alone though. Jet Blue charges extra for what it calls Even More Space seats and Delta for Delta Comfort+. Even Southwest, which doesn’t assign seats, charges $15 for an early boarding pass.

What’s a traveler to do? Membership in a loyalty program will only get you so far. Still, some airlines are trying to curb fliers’ dread over the middle seat. Frontier installed wider middle seats in its Airbus A319 and A320 models.

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