The travel industry is nickel-and-diming us to help scratch its way back to profitability. Unlucky travelers paid $769 million in baggage fees for the first quarter of 2010, up 33% over the same period last year, according to the Department of Transportation. In that same quarter, domestic airlines posted a slight profit of $12 million.
And just when we were getting used to checked-bag fees, the same airline that first imposed them in the U.S. three years ago introduced their infuriating progeny: carry-on-bag fees. On August 1, Spirit Airlines began charging as much as $45 each way for a bag placed in an overhead compartment; if you pay in advance online, the cost is $30. (Items stowed under the seat in front of you remain free; checked bags on domestic flights cost up to $45 for one bag.)
So, will other airlines follow suit? Maybe. George Hobica, founder of Airfarewatchdog.com, says that competitors are monitoring Spirit's experience. If the carry-on fee makes money and doesn't drive away customers, it will likely catch on -- just as the bigger airlines adopted Spirit's checked-bag fee.
Meanwhile, checked-luggage fees are still thrifty travelers' number-one headache. Checking two bags on a domestic United flight, for example, adds $60 each way to your airfare. Fortunately, some airlines haven't followed the checked-bag crowd. Southwest alone continues to allow two free checked bags. JetBlue permits one. All this means you need to figure in baggage costs when you buy your ticket. For example, a $200 ticket on Southwest may seem more expensive than a $190 fare on American. But if you check a bag with American, you'll pay $25 each way and your net cost rises to $240 (for a listing of baggage fees and other extra costs for 16 airlines, visit smartertravel.com/link/airline-fees-chart).
Frequent-flier programs can free you from baggage charges, but they come with their own fees. For example, if you wait to book an award ticket on Continental within 21 days of a flight, you could pay up to $75 for a "close-in rewards booking fee." US Airways charges $150 to redeposit miles if you book an award ticket and don't use it. Reactivating expired miles with American Airlines costs $50 per 5,000 miles, plus $30. Other fees to watch out for: charges for booking by phone or in person, changing your ticket, or choosing your seat. Peak travel days -- which include most of the summer and a couple of weeks around Thanksgiving -- now cost extra. At those times, many airlines tack on a surcharge of $10 to $30 each way.
For a sneak peek at fees that could take off in the States, keep an eye on Ireland's Ryanair. The budget airline is working on installing pay toilets and "vertical seats" for passengers who are willing to stand for a discount.
Fees on the ground. Travel fees will continue to pile up even after you land. Rental-car companies will charge you for such extras as GPS, E-ZPass, prepaid gas and roadside assistance. You're better off keeping those costs separate and taking care of them yourself. Bring your own GPS unit (or use your cell phone), pay the tolls in cash (although you may sit longer in traffic), and buy your own gas, which you're likely to find for much less than the prepaid rate.