Which U.S. Airline Charges the Fewest Extra Fees?

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FEES FOR FLYING

Online tools have made it easy to compare airfares and find the lowest ticket prices. But for travelers who don't factor in fees for "optional services," the overall cost of a flight can be surprisingly high. What used to come standard -- a non-alcoholic beverage and snack, for instance -- may now come at a cost. United Airlines rankled many recently by introducing new low fares with a fee for a carry-on bag. At the same time, existing fees have been rising. Cheapism.com compiled detailed charts comparing a range of fees levied by 10 top U.S. carriers and picked the best and worst when it comes to extra charges. Here are the rankings, from "Whoa, watch out" to "Wow, that's a relief," along with an at-a-glance summary of added fees on domestic flights in the lowest fare class.

Related: How to Fly for Less This Holiday Season
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SPIRIT AIRLINES: FEES, FEES, AND MORE FEES

Fans of Spirit's brand of "unbundled" airline pricing say, why pay for what you don't need? But the rock-bottom ticket prices are accompanied by charges for virtually everything else -- a lot of which may not feel like it should be considered "extra." Spirit also has some unique fees that other airlines don't charge. A mandatory Passenger Usage Fee adds $17.98 or $35.98 to a round-trip ticket, and an Unintended Consequences of DOT Regulations Fee tacks on another $2 each way.
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SPIRIT AIRLINES FEES AT A GLANCE

Carry-on bag: $35-$100 (depending on when the fee is paid)
First checked bag: $30-$100
Excess baggage: $85-$100
Overweight baggage: $30-$100 (41 lbs. and up)
Oversize baggage: $100-$150 (63 in. and up)
Pets: $110 (cabin only)
Unaccompanied minors: $100
Change/cancellation: $90 online, $100 by phone or at the airport 
Booking by phone: $35
Boarding passes printed at airport: $10
Seat selection: $1-$50
Non-alcoholic drinks and snacks: $2 and up

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ALLEGIANT AIR: LOW FARES, LOTS OF FEES

This discount airline charges numerous fees, including $2 for non-alcoholic drinks, up to $8 for using a credit card to book tickets, and as much as $80 for the privilege of choosing a seat. Also, Allegiant assesses fees by segment (one takeoff and landing), so travelers could end up paying multiple times before reaching their final destination.
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ALLEGIANT AIR FEES AT A GLANCE

Carry-on bag: $15-$75 (depending on when the fee is paid)
First checked bag: $18-$50
Excess baggage: $18-$50 (limit 5, only 4 can be reserved online for lower fee)
Overweight baggage: $50-$75 (41 lbs. and up)
Oversize baggage: $75 (81 in. and up)
Pets: $100 (cabin only)
Unaccompanied minors: $0 (under 15 not allowed)
Change/cancellation: $75 per segment
Booking by phone: $15 per segment
Boarding passes printed at airport: $5
Seat selection: $0-$80
Non-alcoholic drinks and snacks: $2-$7

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FRONTIER AIRLINES: BUNDLES OFFER BARGAINS

Some fees on Frontier are actually lower than many other airlines' ($99 for a change or cancellation, for instance), but unexpected fees for non-alcoholic beverages and any bags beyond a personal item are sure to aggravate some passengers. Many add-ons are waived with the purchase of bundles like The Perks (from $49) and The Works (from $59), which, in addition to boons such as seat selection and priority boarding, offer a free carry-on and checked bag -- exemptions worth a minimum of $65 alone on this airline.
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FRONTIER AIRLINES FEES AT A GLANCE

Carry-on bag: $35-$60 (depending on when the fee is paid)
First checked bag: $30-$60
Excess baggage: $75 or $80
Overweight baggage: $75 (51 lbs. and up)
Oversize baggage: $75 (63 in. and up)
Pets: $75 (cabin only)
Unaccompanied minors: $110
Change/cancellation: $99
Booking by phone: $10
Seat selection: $6 and up
Non-alcoholic drinks and snacks: $2 and up

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UNITED AIRLINES: LEAST TRANSPARENT ON FEES

There's little difference in fees among the transcontinental legacy carriers (United, Delta, and American), but United was the first to increase its domestic change fee to $200. The airline also stands out for the extent to which it keeps its fees hidden -- don't expect to find easily accessible and clearly laid out charts on the website. United recently introduced a Basic Economy fare meant to compete with the stripped-down prices of ultra-low-cost carriers. Along with this new fare, passengers will find at least one extra fee: They'll have to pay for a carry-on bag (free with a standard Economy ticket).
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UNITED AIRLINES FEES AT A GLANCE

Carry-on bag: $0
First checked bag: $25
Excess baggage: $150
Overweight baggage: $100-$200 (51 lbs. and up)
Oversize baggage: $200 (63 in. and up)
Pets: $125 in cabin; $209 and up in cargo
Unaccompanied minors: $150
Change/cancellation: $200
Booking by phone: $25

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AMERICAN AIRLINES: FEWER OPTIONS FOR SAVINGS

American charges roughly the same fees as the other big names for things like checked bags ($25) and reservation modifications ($200). While the airline once offered travelers specialty fare bundles, like Choice Plus, which provided certain money-saving benefits like change-fee waivers and complimentary checked luggage for a nominal price upfront, those options were recently discontinued. Some speculate that American is poised to follow United's suit and offer a downgraded fare option that turns what many consider essentials (like a carry-on bag) into à la carte extras.
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AMERICAN AIRLINES FEES AT A GLANCE

Carry-on bag: $0
First checked bag: $25
Excess baggage: $150
Overweight baggage: $100-$200 (51 lbs. and up)
Oversize baggage: $200 (63 in. and up)
Pets: $125 in cabin; $200 checked
Unaccompanied minors: $150
Change/cancellation: $200
Booking by phone: $25

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DELTA AIR LINES: STANDARD FEES, STIFF AWARD PENALTIES

With fees comparable to what the other transcontinental legacy carriers charge, Delta shouldn't surprise many travelers with its add-ons. A few of the costs are actually slightly lower, and along with American and United, Delta waives certain checked-bag fees for customers with an airline-branded credit card. However, Delta loyalists must shell out more for any changes or cancellations made to travel booked with reward miles: All but the top-level members can expect to pay $150 for changes, and miles cannot be redeposited for cancellations made less than 72 hours before departure.
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DELTA AIR LINES FEES AT A GLANCE

Carry-on bag: $0
First checked bag: $25
Excess baggage: $150
Overweight baggage: $100-$200 (51 lbs. and up)
Oversize baggage: $200 (63 in. and up)
Pets: $125 in cabin; $200 in cargo
Unaccompanied minors: $150
Change/cancellation: $200
Booking by phone: $0

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VIRGIN AMERICA: GOOD FOR OVER-PACKERS

Virgin America charges middling fees in general but is notably lenient when it comes to excess baggage. The third checked bag costs the same as the first -- $25, compared with at least $75 on most other airlines. In fact, Virgin allows travelers as many as 10 bags total without upping this base rate, and almost no one charges less for oversize and overweight bags.
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VIRGIN AMERICA FEES AT A GLANCE

Carry-on bag: $0
First checked bag: $25
Excess baggage: $25 (up to 10 bags)
Overweight baggage: $50-$100 (51 lbs. and up)
Oversize baggage: $75 (63 in. and up)
Pets: $100 (cabin only)
Unaccompanied minors: $75-$125
Change/cancellation: $100 or $150 (by region)
Booking by phone: $20

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JETBLUE AIRWAYS: LOADED WITH FREE AMENITIES

JetBlue joined the crowd charging for the first checked bag in 2015 but is still generous with the amenities it offers travelers at no cost. On JetBlue, expect free in-seat DirecTV, as well as Wi-Fi and complimentary snacks more substantial than the usual pack of pretzels. Change and cancellation fees are graduated based on the price of the flight, fare type, and number of days before departure.
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JETBLUE AIRWAYS FEES AT A GLANCE

Carry-on bag: $0
First checked bag: $20-$25
Excess baggage: $100
Overweight baggage: $100 (51 lbs. and up)
Oversize baggage: $100 (63 in. and up)
Pets: $100 (cabin only)
Unaccompanied minors: $100
Change/cancellation: $70-$135 (depending on fare and time until departure)
Booking by phone: $25

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ALASKA AIRLINES: LOW ON FEES, ESPECIALLY FOR ALASKANS

Alaska Airlines waives many fees for residents of its namesake state through the free Club 49 program and keeps extra charges relatively low for everybody else. Change and cancellation fees, as well as baggage fees, are near the lowest, and Alaska has one of the cheapest same-day change fees ($25) of any airline. The only real oddity: a "left on board item return fee" of $20.
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ALASKA AIRLINES FEES AT A GLANCE

Carry-on bag: $0
First checked bag: $25
Excess baggage: $75
Overweight baggage: $75 (51 lbs. and up)
Oversize baggage: $75 (63 in. and up)
Pets: $100
Unaccompanied minors: $25 nonstop/direct; $50 connecting
Change/cancellation: $125 (free 60+ days before departure)
Booking by phone: $15

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SOUTHWEST AIRLINES: THE LONE HOLDOUT

Southwest is hands-down the best airline for travelers worried about fees. It's the only one that lets passengers check up to two bags at no cost and charges no fee to change or cancel a flight. Customers pay only the difference in fare. Add to this free non-alcoholic drinks, snacks, and live TV onboard, and it's easy to see how Southwest is giving longtime favorite low-cost carrier JetBlue a real run for its money in customer satisfaction studies.
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SOUTHWEST AIRLINES FEES AT A GLANCE

Carry-on bag: $0
First checked bag: $0
Excess baggage: $75
Overweight baggage: $75 (51 lbs. and up)
Oversize baggage: $75 (63 in. and up)
Pets: $95 (cabin only)
Unaccompanied minors: $50
Change/cancellation: $0
Booking by phone: $15