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Travel

Airline Fees Bite Harder

Think you’re getting a low fare? Be sure to add up the extras before you buy.

Illustration by Ben the Illustrator

If you’re planning to travel over the holidays, you may want to mail your gifts. As jet-fuel prices rise, U.S. airlines are raising fees for checked luggage, along with other services.

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Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Delta, JetBlue and United recently raised their checked-bag fees for domestic flights and other nearby destinations, meaning the cost to check your first bag is now $30 (up from $25) and the second bag is now $40. At the same time, more U.S. airlines are launching or expanding basic economy fares, which strip away some benefits of regular coach, such as choosing a seat when you book. Alaska Airlines and JetBlue have upped the cost to change your reservation.

“The airline industry tends to be monkey-see, monkey-do,” says Henry Harteveldt, travel industry analyst at Atmosphere Research Group. “If one airline raises the fee for an optional product, competitors generally go along.”

The news isn’t all bad. Frontier Airlines, a budget carrier, recently dropped its change fee for modifications 90 days or more ahead of travel and reduced its fee from $99 to $49 for changes between 89 and 14 days in advance. Most major U.S. airlines charge up to $200 to change a domestic ticket.

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There are ways around these fees. All major U.S. airlines that charge bag fees offer credit cards that waive the first checked-bag fee for you and one or more companions, which may be more than enough to cover an annual fee of about $95. Some premium travel credit cards will help pay added charges. For example, the no-fee PenFed Pathfinder Rewards American Express will reimburse you for $100 of airline in­cidental fees. Your choice of airline matters, too: Southwest allows two free checked bags and does not charge change fees.

The airline’s website is your best source for researching fees that can drive up the cost of your trip. Some price-comparison tools, such as Kayak’s Fee Assistant, will incor­porate baggage fees into your search.