25 Annoying Airline Upcharges That Are Actually Worth It
Airline fees are the price travelers pay collectively for accessible air travel, where there's little mercy for checked luggage and at least three airlines charge for a carry-on. Are there fees worth paying? Is a little bit of luxury worth forgoing the absolute lowest price on a ticket? Absolutely. We thumbed through lists of airline fees and upgrades and found the ones that are worth the splurge for certain passengers.
Why does this fee range from as little as $9 on United to as much as $50 on Southwest? Because on airlines with reserved seats, including United, it basically guarantees your bag a spot in the overhead compartment. On an airline with no assigned seating, such as Southwest, it's the difference between a couple sitting together or on opposite ends of the plane.
Some airlines allow shoppers to reserve tickets at the first price they find for up to a week before deciding to buy. If you don't have the details of a trip worked out, giving United $7 to $35 for its FareLock service beats paying that same airline a change fee of up to $1,000.
If you're tall and don't enjoy the feeling of a seat being rammed into your knees, don't get mad at the person sitting in front — get more room. To sit in an exit row, you need to be physically able to open and move an airplane door and get out quickly, and you may not be able to recline, but extra legroom may be worth the extra money that airlines often charge for this preferred seating.
You don't have to sit in an exit row to get more leg room, although on domestic flights, upgraded seats can cost up to $280 just within the economy section. Fee-heavy Spirit Airlines adds $1 to $150 to the price of a cut-rate ticket for premium seats, while JetBlue's Even More Space seats cost $10 and up. Checking sites such as SeatGuru and SeatExpert lets you know how to get the most for your money.
The Transportation Security Administration's PreCheck requires a background check and costs $85 for five years. But it also allows you to keep your shoes, belt, and light jacket on, and your laptop in a bag as you go through a member-only security lane.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection also has a background check program for international travelers to speed through certain airports by checking in at kiosks. It's $100 for five years but includes TSA PreCheck.
Southwest allows passengers to check in up to 36 hours before they fly, which also gives them priority seating. It costs $15 each way for each passenger but comes in handy if you're in a group and want to sit together.
A perk usually reserved for lounge members, airline rewards members, or those in premium fare classes, airline lounges are also available to the general public at prices between $29 and $75 for a day pass. Travelers expecting a long layover get access to premium drinks, snacks, free Wi-Fi, and plush seating. Most important during a weather delay could be the airline representative devoted to lounge guests.
Even Southwest and little Ravn Alaska start charging by the third bag. But if your airline's $25 for the first bag seems steep, try pricing it against the cost of shipping belongings with the U.S. Postal Service or Greyhound Package Express. If the cost is more than $25, the airline is giving you a better deal.
Sometimes booking separate one-way flights (even on different airlines) can save money and mean better flight times, but there might be another justification: saving a bit of sanity by balancing a flight on a no-frills airline such as Frontier, Spirit, or Allegiant with a relative bargain on a somewhat cushier carrier.
Allegiant, Frontier, Spirit, and Sun Country all charge for carry-on bags, though their apologists note that allowances for carry-ons are huge. Considering the low fares these airlines offer, even adding $15 to $50 per bag each way (depending on when you add it to the itinerary) may not undo the savings.
For families traveling with children, getting through security and onto a flight can be an ordeal, so getting kids to hold it together at a baggage carousel afterward is a lot to ask. But American will take up to 10 bags anywhere within 40 miles of the airport for $30 to $50 per bag, and another dollar per bag, per mile for the next 60 miles. United has a similar service.
Sure, you can take water and a sandwich on the plane with you, but you can't just bring that bottle of beer from the terminal gift shop onto the plane and pop it open. If you want to steady your nerves or just relax a bit, airlines such as Spirit often have drink prices that are more reasonable than their other fees.
Unless you're flying Southwest, which doesn't charge a fee for changing itineraries, you'll pay anywhere from $75 to $1,000 to change plans. Since most tickets are nonrefundable, paying a change fee often still beats eating the cost of a ticket and rebooking.
Those little seat-back screens with movies, shows, and games on them are starting to disappear as passengers bring devices of their own. If you still don't travel with a large screen or fly an airline with Wi-Fi suitable for streaming, dropping $8 to $10 on Alaska Airlines' in-flight tablet isn't a shabby way to pass the time.
While it depends on the cost of a flight and how well your credit card covers travel-related losses, travel insurance through airlines isn't always the ripoff its reputation suggests. No, it likely isn't necessary for a $200 shuttle flight between cities, but if you drop $5,000 on a family vacation and don't think your card or an airline's contract will be enough, by all means take the travel insurance.
The cost of babysitting a child in the sky and airport can be between $25 and $150 per flight, but there's not really a choice if the child is between 5 and 11 (or, for some airlines, up to 14). If your child is beyond the mandatory age and you're still worried, it's best to splurge just to be safe.
The thought of bringing a pet on a plane makes many owners queasy, especially given the horror stories of animals dying on flights, but the cost of boarding a pet can add up quickly. If you're planning a lengthy trip, it may be worth traveling with your pet instead of paying a kennel. If you have a pet small enough to come into the cabin with you, take that option for $75 to $125. Larger animals must fly in cargo, which is more expensive and not available on every airline.
If your flight is delayed or you just want to get home earlier, sometimes the best option is to jump onto the standby list and hope a seat opens up on an earlier flight, or pay for a confirmed seat. Sometimes it's worth the price — typically $75 to $99 for a same-day confirmed flight change — to get to a destination on time or earlier. On Alaska Airlines, it costs $50 for most flights and just $25 for flights within California and between select cities in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest.
Are you unfamiliar with a city or country? Do you not speak the language? Do you have an important meeting in Manhattan but can only get a flight to Newark? United, American, and other airlines provide concierge service to handle such issues for upward of $350. It's a luxury, but often one worth having when business hinges on it.
While tickets from Spirit Airlines are actually cheaper in person than online, most airlines charge a fee ranging from $10 to $35 for booking tickets in person or over the phone. If you have a particularly complicated booking or a lot of questions, though, it's still the way to go.
What's the deal with airline food? Well, it can now be better than anything your parents or grandparents ate on their flights, and probably most of what you'll find in the airport, thanks to collaborations with chefs and a sudden need to give a paying public a better experience. Airlines around the world are showing that "good airline food" isn't always an oxymoron.
In-flight Wi-Fi offers a lot of bang for the buck (when it actually works): For several dollars per flight, you can send email, stream entertainment, and browse Facebook. While quality varies from airline to airline, it makes flights seem to go faster, and logging into Netflix is the first thing some parents do after boarding to keep the kids happy. If your airline has Wi-Fi and charges for it (JetBlue's is free), expect to pay anywhere from $8 to $25 on a domestic flight.
Surfing publications keep a close eye on "boardbag fees," and with good reason: Some airlines charge $150 or more each way to check a surfboard. At that rate, you may be better off finding somewhere that rents high-quality boards by the day — or even buying a new one — once you get there. With a fee of $50 on JetBlue or $75 on Southwest, however, it may be worth bringing your own board.
When does it make sense to bring a second or third piece of checked luggage? When the fees for two bags under the 50-pound weight limit add up to $55, while the fee for one bag over the limit is $100. Airlines get punitive about bag weight, making the cost of checking multiple bags far less than the fee for a single overweight bag.
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