Best Ways to Avoid All Sorts of Airline Fees

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It’s always a great feeling to book a flight with miles and points and pay almost nothing out of pocket.

But depending on the airline and your travel style, you might be on the hook for tens or hundreds of dollars in extra airline charges.  That can really put a damper on the thrill of getting a cheap or free ticket!

Best Ways To Avoid All Sorts Of Airline Fees

Savvy Travelers Know How to Steer Clear of Extra Fees and Charges

So what can you do to avoid paying too much for incidental fees?  I have some tricks to share!

Where You Might Pay More

You’ll hear folks complain about airlines nickel-and-diming passengers.  And often, it’s true!  Especially if you’re flying coach class or don’t have elite status, you might have to pay for:

  • Checked baggage
  • Ticket change or cancellation
  • Overweight or oversize baggage
  • In-flight food and drink
  • In-flight entertainment (including headsets, movies, and games)
  • In-flight Wi-Fi
  • Phone or last-minute ticketing
  • Seat selection
  • Carry-on baggage
  • Pets
  • Unaccompanied minors

Airfarewatchdog has a list of the fees you can expect from major US airlines.  These can really add up, especially when you add in the cost of airplane meals, drinks, and entertainment.

Best Ways To Avoid All Sorts Of Airline Fees

Want an In-Flight Meal, Cocktail, or Entertainment? It Might Cost You!

You can avoid some of these charges by planning ahead and packing light.  But other times, you might have no choice but to pay extra.

Here are some ways to minimize your expenses and keep the “small” in Big Travel with Small Money!

Pack Light, Don’t Check Bags

I always try to take only carry-on luggage because I hate waiting at the baggage carousel after a long flight!  And I don’t like paying extra to check bags!

Smart packing and a good carry-on bag are essential, and Million Mile Secrets readers know a lot about that!

Most US airlines charge at least $25 or more to check a bag (more for 2nd and 3rd checked bags).  A family of 4 could end up paying hundreds of dollars in fees just for baggage alone!

Best Ways To Avoid All Sorts Of Airline Fees

US Airlines Collect Billions (Yes, BILLIONS) of Dollars in Baggage Fees Each Year!

If you can’t get away with just a carry-on, consider flying airlines that don’t charge for checked bags.  For instance, you get 2 free checked bags with Southwest and 1 with JetBlue.  And remember, bags have weight restrictions, too, so spread weight around when you can and leave heavy items at home!

Also, many airlines don’t count your coat or jacket as a carry-on item, so you can stuff your pockets!

Bring Your Own Food and Entertainment

If you’re in domestic coach class, you might get a free soft drink or pack of peanuts, but for more substantial food and drink (if the airline even offers it), you’ll usually have to pay.  And it’s not cheap!

Check out some of these US airline coach class menus:

If you plan ahead and pack portable food (sandwiches, fruit, snack mix, chips, cheese & crackers, granola bars, etc.) you’ll be less tempted to order off the menu.  And folks with children know that having an ample supply of snacks and treats in their carry-on bag is a must, especially on long journeys.

Best Ways To Avoid All Sorts Of Airline Fees

You Could Pay a Premium for Snack Food Onboard, or Bring Your Own From Home at a Fraction of the Cost

Many airlines charge extra for headphones, movies, games, and premium TV channels.  Remember to bring your own earphones (they’re probably better anyway!) and consider packing a tablet or laptop pre-loaded with movies, games, and shows.  This is even more important if you have kids (or are a kid!). 😉

Best Ways To Avoid All Sorts Of Airline Fees

Really, Emily, I’m Working on the Blog! (Not Shown: Angry Birds)

Or you could go the low-tech route and just pack a really good book!

Book Tickets in Advance, Online

Some airlines charge an extra fee for booking award tickets close to the date of travel.  For example, you’ll pay $75 to book an award ticket on American Airlines, US Airways, and United Airlines if it’s less than 21 days prior to departure.  Delta, Southwest, Alaska Airlines, Virgin America, and Hawaiian Airlines do NOT have a close-in booking fee.

Best Ways To Avoid All Sorts Of Airline Fees

Need to Fly Last-Minute? You Might Get Hit With a Fee!

So if you need a last minute award ticket, and have some flexibility in which airline you can travel, choose a frequent flyer program that doesn’t charge these fees!

And many airlines charge a fee for booking award tickets over the phone or in-person.  For example:

Best Ways To Avoid All Sorts Of Airline Fees

Book Your Award Ticket Online, Not by Phone, to Save Money on Certain Airlines

Note:  US Airways charges an award processing fee of $25 to $50 for any award ticket, but that’s waived if you’re an elite Gold, Platinum, or Chairman’s Preferred member.

Save Money on Seat Selection

If you don’t mind taking a chance, you could possibly get upgraded to premium coach class (United Airlines Economy Plus, JetBlue “Even More Space”, etc.).

If you purposely do NOT select a coach class seat, and all the other coach seats fill up, you could get bumped up to premium coach class at check-in without being charged extra.  This is only worthwhile if you’re traveling by yourself and don’t mind sitting in a middle seat in coach if this strategy doesn’t work!

Remember, airlines like JetBlue already have extra legroom on every seat.  For seat selection tips, you can always check out SeatGuru.com.

And if you travel on United Airlines a LOT, you might consider an Economy Plus subscription.  For ~$500 per year, you can upgrade to United Airlines Economy Plus on any flight where Economy Plus seats are available.  For a Global subscription, you’ll pay ~$700 per year.

This wouldn’t be worth it for most folks, but business travelers who fly United Airlines frequently could really get their money’s worth!

Use the Right Credit Card

Some credit cards will waive certain fees (like your 1st checked bag), give you discounts for on-board purchases, and get you into airport lounges for free (or cheaper).  And there are cards that offer statement credits for many airline incidentals, or reimburse you for travel expenses (including fees!).

Here are some of my favorite cards that can help you pay less!

CardWaived FeesStatement CreditsDiscountsAirport LoungesAnnual Fee

Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite™ MasterCard®
First checked bag free for yourself and up to 4 companions on the same reservationN/A25% off in-flight food and drinkN/A$95 (waived for the 1st year)
Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite™ MasterCard®First checked bag free for yourself and up to 8 companions on the same reservationN/A25% off in-flight food and drinkFree American Airlines Admirals Club lounge membership$450
American Express Gold Delta SkyMiles First checked bag free for yourself and up to 8 companions on the same reservation$50 for any Delta purchase within 1st 3 months of having the card20% off in-flight food, drink, and entertainmentDiscounted Delta SkyClub lounge day passes$95 (waived for the 1st year)
American Express Platinum Delta SkyMilesFirst checked bag free for yourself and up to 8 companions on the same reservation$100 for any Delta purchase within 1st 3 months of having the card20% off in-flight food, drink, and entertainmentDiscounted Delta SkyClub lounge day passes$195
American Express Delta ReserveFirst checked bag free for yourself and up to 8 companions on the same reservationN/A20% off in-flight food, drink, and entertainmentFree Delta SkyClub lounge access when traveling on Delta$450
Barclaycard Hawaiian Airlines World Elite MasterCardFirst checked bag free for primary cardholder onlyN/AN/AN/A$89
Chase UnitedPlus ExplorerFirst checked bag free for yourself and 1 companion traveling on the same reservation$50 statement credit after your 1st purchaseN/A2 free United Club passes per year$95 (waived for the 1st year)
Chase United MileagePlus Club2 free checked bags for yourself and 1 companion traveling on the same reservation

Close-in booking fee waiver for award flights booked less than 21 days prior to departure
$100 after 1st (any) purchase, including airline feesN/AFree United Club lounge membership$450
Bank of America Virgin America Premium Signature & Signature CardsFirst checked bag free for yourself and 1 companion traveling on the same reservation

Waived change & cancel fees (Premium card only)
N/A20% off in-flight food, drink, and entertainmentN/A$49 (Signature)
$149 (Premium Signature)
American Express PlatinumN/A$200 per year airline incidental fee credit on a qualifying airline of your choiceN/AFree Centurion, DeltaSkyClub, and Airspace lounge access, plus Priority Pass Select membership$450
Citi PrestigeN/A$250 per calendar year airline incidental fee creditN/AFree American Airlines Admirals Club access when traveling on American Airlines$450
Chase Ritz-Carlton RewardsN/A$300 per calendar year airline incidental fee creditN/AFree Lounge Club Membership$450
Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCardN/AGet 2.1% cash back for travel expenses, including airline incidental feesN/AN/A$89 (waived for the 1st year)

Note:   Some of these cards have steep annual fees, so you’ll only save money if you travel a lot and can make the most of their benefits.

Bottom Line

Even if you’re traveling on a cheap or free award ticket, you might still pay airline incidental fees for checked baggage, booking or changing your ticket, in-flight amenities, and more.

There are ways to minimize what you’ll pay for these extras!  By packing light, bringing your own food and entertainment on-board, booking your own tickets early and online, and having the right credit cards, you can save a lot of money.  Especially folks who travel frequently.

Do you have any tips and tricks for saving money on airline fees?

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12 responses to “Best Ways to Avoid All Sorts of Airline Fees

  1. Every single time I’ve brought food from home, they’ve spotted it when I go through security, and made me eat it or throw it away. You can only keep food you bought after security.

  2. Alex, that’s only true if the food is substantially a liquid or gel. On my family’s last trip, knowing we were leaving near dinner time and had a long layover, we stopped at a sub shop on the way to the airport and brought sandwiches and chips through, no problem. We did have to put off buying some bottles of water (at outrageous prices) until after we got through security, though.

  3. I think another money saver (especially now that United has upped award change fees) is to make the most of schedule changes to refine your itinerary if better availability has shown up.

  4. Re: the bottled water problem.
    If you open the bottle and drink a bit of it before you go through security, you will probably be allowed to take it on board. This happened to me recently when I had two smaller bottles of water I had acquired on the airport bus. They confiscated the unopened one and let me keep the one I had drunk from.

    Taxes – this probably applies more to international flights. Can make a great difference if you are using awards points to fly to Europe. Going via London will cause you to pay through the nose!

  5. FYI – Your chart has no lounges for the ritz carlton card, but it does provide access to various “lounge club” lounges.

  6. ClassicTravelMachine

    Water solution for the long distance traveler: As part of travel gear, bring in your aluminum water bottle empty and fill up at the fountain.

  7. day passes to airport lounges are often inexpensive on ebay, especially ones that are close to expiring

  8. Darius (or anyone who knows), I have the Citi Exec. World Elite AA credit card. Can I visit AA lounge even if not flying American or US Air that day? Also can I have a guest with me?? Thanks.

    • @alex – Strange! Because I’ve had a completely different experience!

      @CJ – Thanks! And updated.

      @ClassicTravelMachine – We have a post on that coming up. It is my preferred method@

      @SAPMAN – You sure can and you can bring a guest.

  9. On international travel, concur that TAXES and fuel surcharges are the nastiest and most difficult travel sticker shock to overcome on award travel. (even for nearby travel to Caribbean…. ) For example, am contemplating a SWA getaway to Jamaica, even using Hyatt reward nights for the new Zilara all inclusive properties there. But the nasty taxes, at over $110 per person are a real downer. (added on top of the otherwise cheap SWA point fares) Regular fares includes the taxes…. may for once prompt me to avoid SWA. (might end my boycott of Delta over just this issue)

  10. About the water…. Or just bring an empty plastic water bottle. It used to be only foreign airports had bottle-filling drinking fountains past security, but in the last six months I’ve seen them at ORD, LAX, MCO, IAH, JFK and even tiny CAK. Add one of the tiny drink mix straws made for 500ml bottles and you are set.

  11. Does free checked bag applies to any airlines as long we use the cards, or only when we book that sepcific airline?