Airline fees are not dead, contrary to what you’ve heard. They are very much alive and thriving — and there’s an excellent chance you’ll pay one on your next flight.
Fortunately, there are also proven ways to avoid airline fees. But to do that, you have to understand how airlines are operating now and how this affects your ticket purchase.
The airline business is in a tailspin after the COVID-19 pandemic. Some airlines won’t be able to pull out, and they will crash. And by “crash,” I don’t mean they’ll file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. I’m talking the works — a Chapter 7 liquidation. The airline is gone.
“The industry is currently attempting some version of a post-apocalyptic recovery,” says Michael McCall, a professor at Michigan State University’s School of Hospitality Business. “Experience suggests that it will take two to five years to really come back and even then, 50% or more of the jobs lost since April 2020 may not return.”
Airlines think they know a way to get you flying again: by removing their most egregious fees. That would be the ticket change fees, which American, United, Delta and Alaska Air rescinded late last month.
There’s just one problem. Airlines have built their entire business model on fees. Without ancillary revenue, they would go to that great big hangar in the sky. And there’s no way to go as far as customers want. Surcharges for seat assignments, drinks, meals, early boarding, pet transportation, unaccompanied minors — OK, fees for pretty much everything else — remain in place. But you can avoid airline fees even now, thanks to some tried-and-true strategies I’ve learned from running a nonprofit consumer advocacy organization.
Note: This is the first of a two-part series on avoiding travel fees in a post-pandemic world. Tomorrow, I’ll tell you how to get out of fees for car rentals, hotels and vacation rentals.
The truth about airline ticket change fees
Airline observers breathlessly proclaimed the end of all airline fees when United Airlines lifted change fees for some — but not all — domestic tickets. Some cheap economy class tickets still have fees. International tickets will continue to have ticket change fee, too.
To air travelers, this halfhearted policy change didn’t make a lot of sense. Why not drop all change fees? Is United somehow incurring an extra expense when it makes a change to an international ticket — or to a less expensive economy class ticket? Of course not.
When the rest of the legacy airlines followed suit a few days later, they did so reluctantly. For example, Delta’s no-change-fee announcement only applied to domestic flights, including Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Airlines know that passengers don’t like ticket change fees, but they aren’t ready to renounce all fees. Why? Do the math. As I explained in this Sunday’s Washington Post column, the airlines would be bankrupt without their ancillary revenue. The days of an airline making money exclusively from selling tickets are long gone.
So how do you avoid airline fees now? Here are a few strategies.
How to avoid ticket change fees
Say you want to make a change to your flight. In addition to a fare differential, your airline will charge you $200 (more for international flights) just to change the ticket. It’s a few keystrokes of work, but a rich source of revenue for an airline. The U.S. domestic airlines collected $2.8 billion in ticket change fees last year, and they have no intention of giving it up, at least over the long term.
Change fees are so absurd that they can consume the entire value of your ticket credit. On American Airlines, a ticket change fee can be as high as $750. So if you paid less than $750 for the ticket, the fee would negate the value of your credit.
For now, there’s only one way to avoid ticket change fees with any certainty: Fly Southwest Airlines. It’s never charged change fees and it probably never will. With other airlines, you have to study your fare type and ensure you won’t have to pay a ticket change fee. You can also try to negotiate your way out of a ticket change fee. As airlines face difficult times, they’re agents are becoming more flexible.
How to avoid seat assignment fees
Topping the list of most-annoying airline surcharges are seat assignment fees. These extras can really throw an inexperienced air traveler for a loop. That’s because after you book a ticket, the airline asks you to pay more to get a seat reservation. That often leaves newbie travelers with the impression that they don’t have a seat on the plane unless they shell out a fee of between $10 and $50 per flight.
Another source of frustration: trying to find seats together for you and your family when you have young children. If you have several kids, that can really add up. There’s a special place in hell reserved for airlines that separate families to make a quick buck on seat assignment fees, but you can avoid these fees.
To avoid airline fees like this, call their bluff. Don’t pay the fee and let them seat you wherever they want. Once the cabin doors have closed, ask a flight attendant if you can move to an empty seat in your class of service. If it’s an almost empty flight, you might get lucky. In an era of social distancing, invoking the six-foot rule might score you a better seat.
How to avoid luggage fees
The ability to check a bag used to be included in every fare. And the reason was simple: Virtually everyone who flies carries at least one bag. Then airlines realized they could make more money by charging extra for the bags. So they did. Instead of lowering their fares, though, they kept them the same and just added the luggage fees, which enraged passengers.
Today, airlines collect more than $5 billion a year in luggage fees. You can spend anywhere from $30 to to $200 for the privilege of checking your luggage. Oh, and don’t try to carry your bag on the plane — many airlines charge for that, too.
Yes, it’s ridiculous.
Only one major domestic airline — you guessed it, Southwest — doesn’t charge fees for the first two checked bags.
To get out of paying luggage fees, either fly Southwest or pack everything in your carry-on. If you need to carry more, FedEx is your friend. If you must, you can play the airline loyalty game and get a “free” checked bag, but beware: Loyalty programs can be a habit-forming experience and the airline almost always wins.
How to avoid airline junk fees
There’s a broader category of what I call airline junk fees. They’re surcharges for drinks, snacks, meals, early boarding and anything else that should be included in the price of your fare, but isn’t. If you don’t obediently pay up, you’ll end up the last person to board the flight, sitting in a middle seat, with no food or drink for the duration of the flight. So how do you avoid airline fees of that type?
There are obvious workarounds. If your airline charges for soft drinks, you’re probably on one of those ultra-low-cost carriers. Plan ahead and bring a teabag or an empty water bottle and ask for a cup of hot water, or bring an empty water bottle and fill it in the airport terminal. Tap water is still free. Bring your own snack and meal. And remember the magic word. You know what it is.
To avoid airline junk fees, plan ahead. Ask the ticket agent politely if you can board a little earlier or if you can change from a middle seat. Believe it or not, the flight crew is human, and they don’t like to see anyone suffering.
Airline fees aren’t going away. They are here to stay. While air carriers may claim they’re removing them, they are just hiding the most egregious fees temporarily. Maybe they can pretend to get rid of their fees — and we can pretend to fly.