6 Costly Airline Fees -- and How to Avoid Them

Use these strategies so you don't have to pay extra when you fly.

If the airlines’ frequent fee hikes weren’t bad enough, now the government is raising a fee that will make it more expensive to fly. Starting July 21, the Transportation Security Administration will more than double the September 11 security fee passengers must pay.

Considering the current fee is just $2.50 on a nonstop flight, the impending increase to $5.60 might not seem that substantial. But the TSA also is lifting its cap on the fee for flights with connections. Before, the fee couldn’t exceed $5 on a one-way trip, regardless of the number of layovers. Now an additional $5.60 will be charged for each leg of a domestic flight with a layover of more than four hours and each leg of an international flight with a layover of more than 12 hours. So if you book a round-trip flight with a five-hour layover each way, you’ll now have to pay a security fee of $22.40 rather than $10.

You can avoid the fee by booking flights before July 21. Thereafter, you’ll have no choice but to pay it. Given this added cost of flying, it will be more important than ever to take steps to avoid the multitude of other fees airlines charge. Here are some of the worst as well as ways you might be able to get around them. For a more comprehensive list, see the SmarterTravel.com Ultimate Guide to Airline Fees.

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Checked baggage fee. If you’ve flown anywhere recently, you’re well aware that most airlines charge passengers to check bags. One way to avoid this fee, which is usually $25 for the first bag and $35 for the second, is to fly on JetBlue or Southwest. JetBlue allows passengers to check one bag for free; Southwest lets passengers check two bags at no charge.

If you choose to fly on an airline that charges for checked bags, you likely can ship your luggage for less using a service such as UPS – especially oversize or overweight bags for which airlines charge $75 or more, says Airfarewatchdog.com founder George Hobica.

Another option is to get an airline-branded credit card if you fly frequently with a particular airline. Airline-branded cards typically offer perks such as a free checked bag for each flight. See How to Choose the Best Travel Rewards Card for You for more information.

Carry-on bag fee. Three airlines – Allegiant, Frontier and Spirit – now charge a fee for carry-on bags, in addition to a fee for checked bags. Hobica says you can avoid the fee if your bag is small enough to fit below the seat in front of you. Otherwise, you can pay a slightly lower fee by paying for your carry-on bag in advance when booking flights on the airlines’ Web sites rather than paying for it at the airport.

Booking fee. Book your flight online rather than over the phone with an airline ticketing agent because most airlines now charge a $15 to $25 fee if you call to purchase tickets.

Seat assignment fee. Many airlines are charging extra for the best seats. You could pay anywhere from $4 to $99 or more to get the seat of your choice. It may seem that the easy way to avoid this fee is simply to be assigned any seat, but more and more airlines have been expanding the number of seats that fall into their preferred seating category, says CheapAir.com CEO Jeff Klee. So the “free” seats sell out quickly. This makes it especially tough for families to get seats together without paying extra for at least a couple of those seats, he says. One way to increase your chances of getting a non-premium seat is to book your flight several months in advance, Klee says. The other option is to fly on an airline without assigned seats, such as Southwest.

Ticket change fee. You better hope you don’t have to change your travel plans because most airlines will charge you a hefty fee to cancel or change the dates of a flight – usually $200, Hobica says. But your credit card might offer a travel insurance perk that will help you cover this cost. Hobica says that the Chase Sapphire card’s travel insurance is especially generous, covering ticket cancellations or changes due to injury, illness or death of the cardholder and immediate family (including in-laws, grandchildren, nieces and nephews).

Also, flying Southwest will help you avoid change or cancellation fees, Klee says. But you’ll still have to pay the difference in ticket price if you change the date of your flight and the fare is more expensive.

Pet fee. If you want Fido to fly with you, you might have to pay more than the cost of a ticket – and your pet won’t even get a seat. Pet fees can be as high as $250 round-trip, Hobica says. You’ll have to keep your small pet in a carrier at your feet, and that will count as your carry-on bag (so you’ll have to pay to check your actually carry-on). Larger pets have to be stowed in the cargo hold, which can be hazardous due to extreme temperatures or a loss of pressurization. You’ll certainly save money if you leave your pet at home with a friend who’ll watch him for free. A pet sitter might even be cheaper than the airline fee you’ll pay – and you won’t risk any mishaps by flying with your furry friend.

Cameron Huddleston
Former Online Editor, Kiplinger.com

Award-winning journalist, speaker, family finance expert, and author of Mom and Dad, We Need to Talk.

Cameron Huddleston wrote the daily "Kip Tips" column for Kiplinger.com. She joined Kiplinger in 2001 after graduating from American University with an MA in economic journalism.