Airline Fees Keep Getting Higher, But You Don’t Always Have To Pay

Do you feel like airlines nickel-and-dime you with fees these days? There are hefty fees to bring a bag (remember when your suitcase flew for free), not to mention fees to change your travel plans, board early enough to be able to use the overhead bins, and many more.

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However, you may be surprised to learn that savvy travelers rarely pay fees when flying. And I'm not just talking about those flyers with elite "status" with the airline. Here are some fees you'll run into, and how to get out of paying them.

Baggage fees
This is one of the most aggravating fees, but can also be the easiest to get out of. Southwest and JetBlue allows free bags for everyone, but most other airlines charge nowadays, with the average being $25 per bag, each way.

Every airline I know of waives baggage fees for "elite" flyers, and it generally takes flying 25,000 miles in a year on the same airline in order to achieve the lowest tier of elite status with an airline.

Robert S. Donovan

However, if you don't fly quite that much there is another option: credit cards. Most airline-branded credit cards come with the free bag perk, and if you travel a lot or with several other people, the savings can add up in a hurry.

What many people don't realize is that the free bag benefit usually doesn't just apply to the cardholder. For example, Delta's American Express cards allow a free bag for up to eight other people traveling on the same reservation. The American Airlines Citi Platinum Select MasterCard allows a free bag for up to four travel companions. So if you take your family of five on vacation, everyone can bring their own suitcase with no additional fee, saving you $250 in bag fees.

Cards that offer this benefit typically have annual fees in the $100-range, but if you travel even once a year with a companion, it's worth it. Plus, you'll earn more miles toward free travel and get some other nice benefits, like priority boarding which I'll get to in a minute.

Changes and Cancellations
It baffles me how the major airlines have the nerve to charge a $200 change or cancellation fee. Why should I have to pay so much to not travel, or to occupy an otherwise empty seat on a different flight? I could even understand if you were cancelling or changing at the last minute, but you could call a month before the flight and still be on the hook.

Anyways, in certain cases the law is on your side here. The most commonly used method of getting out of change fees is invoking the "24 hour rule." Basically, the law says you have 24 hours to change your mind and cancel your ticket at no cost to you, as long as you booked it more than seven days in advance.

Some airlines work this law into their reservation systems. For example, American Airlines lets travelers reserve seats for 24 hours without paying.

If you miss the 24 hour window, there are still some ways to get out of it. For example, if your flight schedule is changed between the time of booking and departure (quite common), you may be entitled to cancel or change for free. And, if the flight you're on is delayed by more than a set amount of time, you'll be eligible for a full refund, even on non-refundable tickets. These policies vary depending on the airline, so check your airline's specific guidelines if this applies to you.

Of course, if it fits into your travel plans, you could always fly Southwest, which doesn't charge any change or cancellation fees.

Priority boarding
With most airlines, "priority boarding" simply means that you'll board in the first wave of the general boarding, after first class and elite-status flyers, but before the general boarding.

While priority boarding isn't the perk it once was (sometimes literally half of coach has it), in these days of baggage fees, there is more competition than ever for space in the overhead bins. And, unless you are in this first wave of people to board, you are very likely to find that there is nowhere to stash your bags by the time you get on.

Fortunately, this is another perk of most airline-branded credit cards that you can take advantage of that can make the annual fee well worth it.

Know what to avoid
There are far too many airline fees to list here, but these three are some of the most common. However, there are several other less-common fees you could run into.

For example, did you know most airlines charge a fee if you book a ticket over the phone, when you can book the same ticket online without the fee? And most airlines charge if you want to sit in a "preferred location" toward the front of the aircraft or in a window seat, but will let you switch into these seats for free within 24 hours of departure?

Every airline has its own fees, but smart travelers can get out of most of them. Doing a little homework and knowing the loopholes can save you lots of money on your next trip.

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