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Those pesky airline fees and how to avoid them


What’s a blanket on a cold airplane worth?

Not $12, at least not for one passenger on a recent Hawaiian Airlines flight from Las Vegas to Hawaii. A 66-year-old man was charged $12 for the blanket, but not with anything else, despite causing the flight to be diverted to Los Angeles. According to news reports, the passenger was deemed “unruly” by airport police after saying he “would like to take someone behind the woodshed for this” and was removed from the flight.

“Diverting a fight is clearly not our first choice, but our crew felt it was necessary to divert to Los Angeles and deplane the passenger before beginning to fly over the Pacific Ocean,” the airline said in a statement.

George Hobica, the founder of Airfarewatchdog.com, said: “I think Hawaiian should have just given him the blanket for free. Doing that emergency landing cost Hawaiian thousands of dollars. This fee seems more silly than exorbitant.”

As most passengers can’t help but notice, add-on fees are becoming more and more prevalent. Hobica said the fee that makes most passengers angry is the one for changing flights, which costs an average of $200 on domestic flights. But that does not mean the smaller fees aren’t aggravating.

A recent study by the farecasting app Hopper showed that airlines are increasingly “unbundling” their flights, offering lower base prices for travelers to get on the plane and making them pay à la carte for almost everything else, from seat assignments to baggage and in-flight supplements like food, entertainment and, apparently, blankets. These secondary fees now represent roughly 10 percent of total airline revenues, according to Hopper.

The problem is that the fees vary greatly from airline to airline and class to class, which means comparing base ticket prices has become almost meaningless.

“From the consumer’s perspective, this results in increased confusion and makes it frustratingly difficult to comparison shop or to understand the full cost of travel,” said Patrick Surry, Hopper’s chief data scientist.

For example, Spirit offers the lowest base ticket prices of the eight airlines studied by Hopper, with a median fare of $356, but charges the most for baggage ($50 for the first bag, $111 for the second) and for changing flights ($250). Throw in a $35 carry-on fee and, if you’re a traveler with two checked bags who has changed your flight, you could be paying more than twice the cost of your base fare.

Hopper’s recently released Fair Bear feature aims to help by breaking down the restrictions or fees associated with your flight, Surry said.

But there’s more you can do to keep your flight costs closer to what you thought you were paying in the first place. Here’s what you need to know about the most common and costly fees.

Change fees

The change fee is not only the most costly but also the most difficult to avoid. And don’t even think about canceling.

The Hopper study (which excludes data from Southwest and Delta) found that a nonrefundable, domestic reservation in the main cabin is usually changeable, for a price. For example, United charges an average of $200 to change a domestic flight, while Virgin America’s fee is $125, which is the lowest of the airlines studied. The fee varies among the budget airlines as well, with Frontier charging $198 and Spirit $250.

“The higher the change fee on a nonrefundable airfare, the greater the incentive for some travelers to simply buy a more expensive refundable airfare,” Hobica said.

If you’re prone to changing plans, try to book with Southwest, which is the only major domestic airline that does not charge for canceling or changing your flight. Alaska Airlines will also let it slide if you do so within 60 days (otherwise it’s $125).

Do not expect to see these fees get cheaper or go away anytime soon, unless airlines take away the option of changing a flight altogether.

Baggage fees

Standard baggage fees for domestic flights have remained steady for several years now at $25 (Spirit and Frontier charge more), but airlines pick up the slack with their charges for overweight bags, which have crept up over the years, Hobica said.

Once again, Southwest is the no-fee winner, not charging for checked bags (with some size and weight restrictions). You won’t see much budging on this from other airlines (except on international flights).

“Another recent trend is more carriers are starting to charge for carry-on luggage,” Surry said. Spirit and Frontier already charge for a carry-on.

“The Big Three domestic airlines are following a similar model with their basic fares, where carry-on luggage may not be permitted unless you’re willing to pay extra,” Hobica said, referring to United, Delta and American.

In-flight fees

And now we come full circle to the $12 blanket.

“The most important step in reducing your total cost is to plan carefully for what additional services you’ll use when you travel and pay attention to what those add-ons will cost if they’re not included in the base price,” Surry said.

Most airline websites list these fees, which vary by airline, fare and flight, so do your homework.

American and Delta made most of their in-flight entertainment options free last year, but many others, including Southwest and Hawaiian, still charge for movies and television.

Bringing your own tablet with pre-downloaded content (don’t forget the earbuds, for which many airlines also charge) is now a no-brainer; you’ll avoid charges for what you watch. Many airlines allow access to free entertainment options via apps that you download in advance. You will also avoid any potential rental charges for tablets; domestic airlines charge between $8 and $15 depending on the length of flight.

Other common-sense approaches for saving money include eating at the airport or bringing a sandwich onboard. And don’t forget to dress appropriately; nobody wants to pay $12 for a blanket.



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