Recently, I have been on several TV news programs speaking about ancillary fees. Fox News did a segment on which airline fees are worth it and which can and should be avoided.
Naturally, I didn’t get to everything on air that we had discussed prior to the broadcast. So, here are some of my notes and observations about select airline fees.
As a point of reference, airlines have been adding fees at an amazing rate over the past four years, starting in 2008 when American Airlines was the first major airline to institute a first-checked-bag fee. Spirit Airlines introduced the absolute first US checked baggage fee about a year prior to AA.
Which fees are worth it
I think Southwest’s early bird fee is worth it. I have an older friend who travels often. The early bird fee, only $10, helps him a lot.
I spend my own money to get an extra-legroom seat on transatlantic flights. The extra legroom on Delta and United really makes a difference.
Sometimes, when I need to work, the WiFi fees are a bargain. I’m ecstatic when I need WiFi and I get on a flight that has it.
Which are just nothing more than a rip off?
For some passengers, getting on a plane early is worth an additional $40. Is it a rip-off? No, because I only have to pay it for something I want. If I had no choice, I would feel ripped off.
On the other hand, being charged a $150 change fee for changing an airline ticket or $250 for changing an international flight, PLUS the change in airfare — that’s a pure rip-off. The airlines only do that because they can. With their latest fee bundle American Airlines had all but admitted to making the change fee the throw-away designed to get passengers to pay for a checked bag and early boarding.
Charging a passenger $100 to carry on a bag is a rip-off no matter how many “warnings” are sent to passengers. Some of the third bag charges, in the range of $150 – $350-plus for international flights, are rip-offs. DOT is even looking at forcing airlines to alert passengers that they are going to be dinged with a BIG fee.
Can you get any of these extras for free?
There are lots of way to get around the fees, but you have to give up some freedom and dance to the music that airlines play.
Get a special airline credit card and many airlines will allow you to board early for free and check your first bag for free.
If you are a member of a frequent flier club and amass enough miles to become an elite flyer, you can avoid many of the fees — from checked bags, to telephone help, to extra legroom and early boarding,
Otherwise, the system is pretty locked down. It is pay-to-play when it comes to extras on airlines. Even flight attendants don’t have the flexibility they once had.
Fees are complicated and getting more complicated
Fees are reaching a dizzying level of complication — fees for printing out boarding passes, fees for getting on the plane early, fees for holding a reservation and so on. However, every static fee is somewhat understandable. They are undesirable and irritating, but with some digging we can discover what the fee will be despite how much we hate the fee.
But now the airlines are moving into areas where these maddening fees are becoming more complicated and almost impossible to compare. They are starting to change the fees based on mileage, time of the year and other factors. It is already the norm with many airlines for seat reservations, and soon some airlines are boasting that they will vary baggage fees based on distance, destination and the time of the year when passengers fly.
Spirit has suggested that during the Christmas season, when passengers are carrying gifts, they might start charging more for checked baggage. Wouldn’t that be nice.
And now come the bundles
American and Delta are already bundling fees, making it hard to know what exactly you are paying for each fee and forcing passengers to figure out whether it really is a deal or not.
With American Airlines’ latest bundled fees, passengers can pay an additional $68 per round-trip for a checked bag, early boarding and the ability to change flights without incurring the $150 change fee. When you add it up, passengers are being asked to pay a new fee to avoid paying a less-desirable fee. It really is amazing.
Airlines are still effectively hiding their fees from all travelers.
Airlines don’t tell passengers how much seat reservations fees are until they have filled out forms on their website and are several pages into the reservation. If travelers are buying a ticket from a travel agent, even an online travel agent, passengers are never told of specific baggage fees and seat reservations fees. They have to purchase their tickets and then look on the airline sites for the fees they may have to pay.
The only real way to compare dynamic fees with all of the exceptions granted for frequent fliers and credit card users is for travelers to go to each major airline flying the route they are researching, go through the reservation process and then manually compare prices. It is unfair to consumers who cannot easily compare apples to apples when making airline reservations.
The Consumer Travel Alliance is battling this war of deception and the misleading acts of withholding fees from passengers so that they can compare prices across airlines. The Department of Transportation is working on a new regulation that will require airlines to be upfront about specific fees they will be charging so that, hopefully, in a few years, consumers are not flying blind.