After hitting up taxpayers for billions of dollars in bailouts, big banks are planning to pay back their U.S. customers the only way they know how: by raising bank fees.

Last week, the The Wall Street Journal announced that Bank of America (NYSE: BAC) would soon impose fees on checking accounts and other basic banking services. The bank will reportedly test various new pricing models for the remainder of the year before deciding on a fee strategy in early 2011.

B of A wouldn't be the first bank to eliminate free checking. WSJ cited Fifth Third Bancorp and TCF Financial (NYSE: TCB) as having replaced free checking accounts with accounts requiring minimum balances or certain transactions to waive monthly fees in the $5 to $15 range. Wells Fargo (NYSE: WFC) has also started moving away from free checking in some areas, such as California, with some additional changes slated to take effect July 1.

Setting a trend
What bank customers need to realize is that banks are in business to make money, and big banks in particular both want and expect to make big money. I've already commented on the back-and-forth between big banks and Congressional lawmakers about limits on other types of bank fees, such as overdrafts and ATM charges.

So when credit card legislation makes it harder to take advantage of debt-ridden borrowers with higher rates and exorbitant fees, you really shouldn't be surprised when Barclays (NYSE: BCS) and American Express (NYSE: AXP) start trying to replace that revenue with cards that carry high annual fees. When proposed cuts on interchange fees threaten the business models of Visa (NYSE: V) and MasterCard (NYSE: MA), they're going to find some way to fight back as well.

In other words, as long as you insist on being a customer of the biggest financial institutions in the country, then prepare to be fleeced. Because in all likelihood, that's what's going to happen in more and more ways, as big banks scurry to keep their shareholders happy.

Or pick what's behind door No. 2
Fortunately, there's an alternative, one that should come naturally to ordinary citizens who've responded to such situations time and time again. It's really quite simple: Take your business elsewhere.

Once upon a time, I had most of my money parked in an account at Washington Mutual. It certainly qualified as a big financial institution, but it poked fun at the way its competitors nickled and dimed their customers to death. With its competitors charging higher fees and paying lower rates, going with WaMu was a no-brainer.

Since WaMu's ugly end, though, I've increasingly turned to credit unions for my banking needs. With many credit unions, free checking is just the tip of the iceberg. In many cases, you'll find better rates than you can find from even the top-paying banks, and credit union accounts carry federal insurance with the same limits as the FDIC provides for bank deposits.

Once purely local, credit unions with a national scope are plentiful, and thanks to the Internet, you don't need to be near a branch to get just about everything you'd ever want from a banking relationship. Best of all, credit unions are not-for-profit entities designed to benefit customer members rather than maximize shareholder profits.

As an alternative, you can find plenty of small, locally owned banks that still have a commitment to service and savings. The risk there is that bigger banks will swoop in and take over, as they have in the past. But in the aftermath of the financial crisis, it's less likely that big banks will want to raise the scorn of Main Street customers by grabbing hold of their little counterparts to get even bigger.

You have the power
It's easy to complain about big banks and the power they wield. But in reality, those banks are only as strong as their customers make them. If you're fed up with what your bank is doing to you, don't despair. Just take a look around. With a little effort, you'll find exactly the services you need at a price that's right.

Tune in every Monday and Wednesday for Dan's columns on retirement, investing, and personal finance.