Business Travel

Dodging Airline Fees the Hard Way

Our travel writer faced the ultimate challenge: Fly Spirit Airlines without paying a single fee.

Fees for everything from checked baggage to a few extra inches of legroom account for a generous portion of airline revenue. In 2013, U.S. airlines pulled in $3.4 billion, or 1.7% of total operating revenue, in baggage fees alone. But no airline levies fees with the same gusto as Spirit Airlines. In 2013, Spirit collected $276 million in baggage fees, or 17% of its total operating revenue, according to company data.

 

How does Spirit manage to collect ten times the industry average? After leading the way with a fee for checked bags in 2007, it began to charge for carry-on bags in 2010. Spirit’s fee-for-all doesn't end there: It also charges you to buy your ticket online, select a seat or order a soft drink in flight.

Other airlines are eyeing Spirit’s a la carte model. Frontier Airlines introduced similar fees last spring, including charges for carry-on bags and seat selection. Allegiant Air also makes you pay for both. Brett Snyder, of CrankyFlier.com, says the biggest U.S. airlines may follow suit, possibly charging for carry-on bags and seat assignments.

The Spirit challenge

If Spirit’s barrage of fees is a harbinger of industry practices to come, do you have a fighting chance to avoid being nickel-and-dimed? To find out, I challenged myself to fly Spirit without paying a single avoidable fee.

I chose a round-trip from Baltimore (the nearest Spirit-served airport) to Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Base price: $178. The next-cheapest flight (on Delta) was $222. If I could avoid extra charges, I’d be $44 ahead.

First hurdle: When I was about to click to buy my ticket online, I noticed that I’d have to pay a “usage fee” of $34; to avoid it, I’d have to go to an airport ticket counter. So I took a commuter train from Kiplinger’s offices in downtown Washington, D.C., to BWI Airport. The train fare ran $12 round-trip. I was still ahead, but the two hours I spent getting to the airport and back was an annoyance—which might be exactly the reaction Spirit hopes for.

I prepared for my flight by researching options for bringing luggage on board without paying the $35 carry-on bag fee or the $30 checked-bag fee (those prices are $15 higher at the ticket counter). Dodging the carry-on fee is manageable if you can pack light, in a bag that fits below the seat in front of you. Any backpack or small roll-aboard would work, but you can also invest in a bag custom-made for Spirit flights. I borrowed one model, the CarryOn Free, an $80 bag designed to fit precisely under Spirit’s seats (personal items can be no larger than 16 inches by 14 inches by 12 inches). Another option, albeit a less-fashionable one, is a wearable suitcase (you wear it on the plane, but it converts to a duffle). Several Jaktogo designs, for example, recently sold for $70.

Skeptical gate agents had me measure my bag on the return flight. If it hadn’t been the right dimensions, I would have owed a $100 baggage fee. Once aboard, no one stopped me from stashing my bag in the overhead bin.

In order to avoid the fee for choosing a standard seat, I let Spirit select one for me. On the outbound flight, I landed an aisle seat in the second row from the back, where I had to withstand a parade of passengers heading to the restrooms. On the return flight, I was closer to the front but in the dreaded middle seat.

In the spirit of eschewing all fees, I satisfied my hunger pangs with trail mix purchased at my local grocery store, avoiding the $3 muffin-and-hot-drink combo and $7 glass of wine. Dodging the rest of the fees, many of which other airlines also charge, was no sweat. I didn’t change my flight itinerary ($115 online, $125 at the gate), fly standby ($25 each way for an earlier flight) or bring a pet on board ($100 per pet container).

How to fight back

Whether or not you’re flying Spirit, there are tricks to avoid fees. First, keep fees in mind when comparing fares from different carriers. On my flight, Spirit’s $34 online booking fee would have nearly wiped out my savings over the pricier Delta flight, and the $50 fee at the counter for a carry-on bag would have pushed the total $40 higher than Delta’s.

Check out the fee chart on Kayak at www.kayak.com/airline-fees, but double-check your airline’s Web site for any updates. To avoid baggage fees, fly Southwest (two free bags) or JetBlue (one free bag). Measure and weigh your bags before a trip to avoid a surprise overweight-luggage charge (at least $25 for bags that are more than 40 pounds and as high as $150 for bags that are longer than 80 inches).

Spirit at least acknowledges that its fees are unloved. It recently began trying to make its pricing model more palatable, renaming airfares “Bare Fares” and fees “Frill Control.” At least the nickel-and-diming has a cute name and Spirit fliers understand why it’s happening. And the airline’s carry-on bag fees have a silver lining: On my flights, very few passengers brought luggage aboard, and the boarding process was one of the fastest I’ve experienced in years.

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