Travel Tips

5 Airline Fees You Can Avoid (and 4 You Can’t)

Locations in this article:  London, England

planeThe latest numbers are in from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. For 2012, U.S. airlines collected more than $6 billion in ancillary fees. There were $3.5 billion collected in bag fees, a 3.8 percent increase from 2011.

Change fees reached $2.6 billion, up 7.3 percent from last year. Not only is this the highest amount of annual fees, major carriers added 52 fee changes in 2012.

The bottom line is that you don’t have to be a victim to all of these fees. Here are five airline fees you can avoid and four you can’t.

No Fee for Me: 5 Fees You Can Avoid

1. Carry-On Charges

Checked bag fees may be the norm, so it was only a matter of time before carry-on charges crop up. Last year, Spirit Airlines broke ground with a mandatory carry-on fee (more info below), and now Frontier has joined the party. Frontier charges $25 to $100 for a carry-on depending if you pay online before or at the gate. But this fee can be avoided by booking directly at

2. Boarding Pass Printing

A Spirit Airlines flight comes with many potential fees, some avoidable. In defense of the airline’s fee structure, it does provide a guide to all its fees and those that can be avoided. One of the easiest to avoid is the boarding pass fee. If you forget to print your boarding pass, the gate agent will charge you $10. But do it at home and this fee is gone.

3. Booking Fees

Phone booking charges have existed for a long time, but the solution is rather painless. You can book online or in person and avoid most booking charges (see below for the ones that are unavoidable). If you are looking to perfect the art of the conversation and book over the phone, you can still book for free using Southwest or Air Canada.

4. Checked Bags

Checked-bag fees are by far the most popular, but in rare cases they are avoidable. You’ll get your first bag for free with JetBlue, US Airways international and Virgin America (only with non-refundable fares). Southwest gives you your first two bags free. Carrying a credit card or having status on an airline can also offer a free bag. Follow this nifty graphic from NerdWallet for all your options.

5. Ticket Change Fees

First United hiked its change fee from $150 to $200 for domestic flights and $300 for international flights. This change has been matched by US Airlines, Delta and parts of American. But you can pay more upfront to avoid, this by not opting for the cheapest non-refundable fare. You don’t need a completely refundable fare either. Instead with airlines like American, you can opt for a flex fair with “Choice Essential” where you pay upfront but are exempt you from a change fee.

Fee-for-All: Four Unavoidable Fees

1. A Spirited Carry-On

Spirit’s fares are some of the lowest, but some of its fees are inescapable. Plan on bringing a carry-on, don’t expect it to be free. If your bag doesn’t fit under the seat, you’ll be charged. And the longer you wait, the more you pay. It’s $35 at booking, $40 at online check in, $50 at the kiosk and $100 at boarding. So plan ahead, or get yourself a Scottevest and start stuffing the pockets.

2. Thirsty on Frontier

Food and beverage service continues to be cut back, especially on Frontier. If you’re thirsty on your next Frontier flight, you’re paying and not just for alcoholic drinks. It’s $1.99 for coffee, tea, soda and juice. Coffee is the best bet, because refills are free.

3. Seat Selection on AirTran

Knowing where you’ll be seated on a flight is fast becoming a luxury. You limited to choosing the most basic seats (aka middle seats in the back of the plane) on most airlines, unless you upgrade to the preferred options. It gets worse when you come to AirTran, where you’ll pay $6 to $20 to select your seat before a flight.

4. Booking on Spirit

Need to book a flight on Spirit and don’t want to pay to book online or on the phoneThen you better head to the airport. Like most airlines, Spirit charges ($10 in this case) to book on the phone. Unlike most airlines, it costs $8.99 to $16.99 to book online.  And no matter where you book, there will be a $2 DOTUC fee. What’s DOTUC? Department of Transportation Unintended Consequences fee.

Check out the Smarter Traveler’s comprehensive guide to all of the latest fees.

By Lily J. Kosner for