10 Ways to Avoid Airline Fees This Holiday Season

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This post comes from Beth Braverman at partner site The Fiscal Times.

Planning on flying somewhere this holiday season? Get ready to pay more.The average airline ticket price to the top holiday travel destinations increased 7 percent this year over last, according to a study by travel site Orbitz. That’s a hefty increase, but where the airlines really get us are with additional fees, on everything from checked bags to in-flight Wi-Fi service.

Airlines are expected to bring in $24 billion in fees for a la carte services this year, according to a new report by the IdeaWorksCompany. Total ancillary fees, which include all airline revenue excluding ticket sales, has increased by 89 percent in the past three years.

“Fees charged for checked bags, onboard cafes and early boarding privileges are a big part of the ancillary revenue story,” IdeaWorksCompany president Jay Sorenson said in a statement. “Globally, about 56 percent of ancillary revenue is produced by the optional extras sold to consumers at airline websites, on board aircraft, and increasingly through travel agents and online travel retailers.”

Such practices are helping to boost airline profits – but just because the airlines are trying to nickel and dime their way to additional revenue doesn’t mean savvy travelers can’t beat sneaky fees. Here are 10 tips to make sure airline fees don’t put a dent in your holiday shopping budget:

1. Cozy up to your elite traveler friends

If you’ve achieved elite status with an airline’s frequent-flier program, airlines waive checked-baggage fees, which usually start at about $25 per person for the first checked bag. But airlines will also extend these perks to up to eight passengers traveling with the elite flier. So even if you don’t have elite status, booking your flight along with a friend who does can get you access to the same benefits.

2. Fly JetBlue or Southwest

These two airlines didn’t join the baggage fee bonanza that began in 2008 when airlines decided to charge passengers for checked luggage to offset rising fuel costs. JetBlue still offers travelers one free checked bag, and Southwest offers two free checked suitcases, though the latter airline has hinted that the policy could change.

3. Compare fees before buying

Check out the fee comparison tool at TravelNerd.com. Enter in the services you need, such as the ability to print a boarding pass at the airport or choose a seat assignment ahead of time, and the tool will tell you which airline offers the lowest fees for those services.

4. Buy with the right credit card

Using an airline-branded credit card can get you some of the same perks as elite travelers, including free checked bags and priority boarding. Some cards that aren’t affiliated with an airline have additional perks. American Express Platinum, for example, offers users up to $200 in airline fee rebates per year.

5. Pack lightly

Even if you’ve avoided the checked-bag fee, a heavy suitcase could still mean an excess baggage fee, which can be up to $100 for suitcases that weigh more than 50 pounds. Weigh your bags ahead of time to prevent any surprises when checking in.

If your bag is still overweight after you’ve pared down your packing list, see if you can strategically split up heavy items with a friend or family member. It also may be cheaper to ship your belongings to your destination ahead of time than pay the fee for an overweight bag. Pack a portable luggage scale to make sure that travel souvenirs don’t put you over the limit on the way back.

6. Buy your ticket online

More than three-quarters of U.S. leisure travelers purchase their flight tickets online. If you’re among the 1 in 4 who haven’t switched, here’s one more reason: Some airlines charge you $25 to $30 or more for the privilege of booking your ticket via phone with a live agent.

7. Bring onboard snacks

It’s been a decade since Delta started charging for onboard food, and your chances of getting a free bite on a flight are pretty slim. Instead of paying a fortune for a cheese-and-cracker plate, stock up on snacks from home (they’ll cost less than if you purchase them at the airport) to get you through the flight. Bring an empty water bottle (to get through security) and fill it up at a water fountain before boarding.

8. Don’t choose your seat ahead of time

An increasing number of airlines are charging $10 or more for passengers who’d like to select their seat when they purchase a ticket, with an even higher rate for those who want a coveted exit row or “premium” coach seat. Instead, check in online as soon as you can (usually 24 hours prior to your flight), and you can choose – for free – among any seats that haven’t been assigned. “Your choices are still limited, but it’s still better than waiting until you get to the airport and getting stuck in a middle seat,” says Anne Banas, executive editor of SmarterTravel.com.

9. Check out bundled fees

American Airlines began offering the “Choice Plus” option for travelers, which costs an additional $44 per ticket. Buying the pricier ticket gets you 1.5 times the frequent-flier miles, plus waived fees for checked bags, a premium beverage, priority boarding and changed flights. This can be particularly valuable if you think your travel date may change. “That can essentially change a cheap, nonrefundable ticket into a refundable one,” says Brian Kelly, who runs ThePointsGuy.com.

10. Wait as long as possible to change a ticket

The big airlines now charge $150 to $200 to change or cancel a ticket reservation. If you don’t need the money back right away, wait as long as possible before making the change, Kelly says. If your flight is delayed or canceled (20 percent of flights are) or rescheduled, the airline will change or refund your ticket without levying the change fee.

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