How to avoid the worst of the airline fees this summer

Change fees

These are the worst and usually most expensive fees. It can cost up to $200 on large airlines to make any changes to a ticket for a domestic flight, and $400 (or more) for international itineraries. We are talking about the usual non-refundable tickets; refundable airfare is very expensive. What to do?

Be certain of your dates: This is especially important when planning a trip with friends or family. Make sure everyone is in agreement about the itinerary before you book the flights.

Fly the no-fee airline: Southwest is the only airline that does not charge a change fee.

Change your mind quickly: The U.S. Department of Transportation rule says shoppers can change (or cancel) tickets within 24 hours of purchasing them with no penalty.

Throw yourself on the mercy of the airline: A few legacy carriers still allow cancellations in extreme situations (such as a death in the family) but not all airlines do. If you think you have a special case, by all means, call the airline and explain the situation. You might get lucky, you might not.

Food and drink fees

Delta and American now offer meals in economy on some routes. Others offer a little something free like soft drinks and the inevitable tiny package of peanuts or pretzels, but you won’t get even that on Spirit, Frontier or other ultra-discount carriers. So don’t forget your credit card!

A better idea: Buy something at the airport (fairly expensive but at least you won’t go hungry), or even better, bring some food from home. You won’t look odd because everyone does it, and super-savvy travelers bring empty plastic bottles through security to replenish at one of those water-filling stations found in many airports.

Baggage fees

Which airline still allows you to check a big bag for free? Only Southwest. As for smaller carry-on bags, they’re free on most airlines with the exception of Allegiant, Frontier and Spirit. Another exception is flying basic economy on American and United (those customers cannot bring carry-ons onto a plane but must check them for a fee). What to do?

Check size allowances: Some airlines, including Spirit, allow travelers to take a very small bag if placed under a seat and this could work for a weekend trip.

Check the difference in bag fees: Airlines that charge for all bags sometimes charge more for carry-ons (probably so fewer passengers will bring bags on the aircraft which can slow boarding and create delays). A checked bag can be cheaper.

Pay early: Some airlines offer the cheapest bag fee during booking; if you wait to pay until check-in or at the airport, the price may zoom, especially on those ultra-cheap airlines.

Use a carry-on no matter what it costs: If you are allowed to bring a regular-size carry-on aboard the plane, do it even if you have to pay, for this reason: The bag that travels by your side is the bag that cannot get lost.

Better seat fees

More and more economy travelers are making a rude discovery. After they book their flights, they check their seats only to learn they have a terrible one (in the back or a middle seat) or they have no seat whatsoever and are told it will be assigned later. What to do?

You could pay for early seat selection (sometimes this is only a few dollars but it can be a lot more), but here’s a better idea.

First, sign up for your airline’s miles program. It costs nothing and it may give you a slight edge in the airline game of “who gets assigned the better seat.”

Then, be vigilant; return to your reservation every few days or so to see if any seats (or better seats) have opened up, and grab them.

The last resort is to check in for your flight the moment you are allowed to do so (24 hours before departure) and check for better seats then. Remember, others will be doing the same thing so act fast.

Embedded taxes/fees

There is no way to avoid these government and airline fees that cover such things as security and fuel costs but you can still mitigate them in one easy step: Always compare airfares.

No single airline always has the best deal so if you don’t compare you could pay too much overall. And why pay more than you have to?

Rick Seaney is the CEO of FareCompare, a website that curates the best deals on flights from around the world. Any opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author.

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