How Airline Passengers Can Dodge Fees

No need to wait for Congress. Flyers can take steps now to reduce their costs.

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As Congress debates how – and whether – to regulate how airlines disclose fees, there are steps consumers can take now to protect themselves from unexpected costs while traveling.

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First, some background: Airline fees are popping up everywhere. Not only will you typically get charged $25 per checked luggage and $7 for a snack pack, but you might also find yourself shelling out $8 for a fleece blanket or $10 for exatra legroom. In August, Spirit will even begin charging for carry-on bags that don’t fit under seats.

While Congress or the Transportation Department may soon require airlines to explain their fees in a more straight-forward way, savvy consumers can take steps now to avoid or reduce fees. Here’s how:

1) Look up the policies of your airline before getting to the airport. Say you’re taking a United flight from New York to Denver next week. If you visit United.com, you’ll find that a chicken caeser salad goes for $9, as does a turkey sandwich. That might inspire you to pack your own peanut butter and jelly, or at least a granola bar to tide you over. Or say you’ve booked a ticket on Southwest. You can go ahead and relax while packing your checked baggage, because the first two bags are free, unlike on most other airlines.

2) If the policies are hard to find, use a site such as SmarterTravel.com, which offers a fee guide, so you don’t have to do any extra work. SmarterTravel.com’s guide provides the fee policies on all major airlines, so whether you’re flying with Delta or Continental, you can get a breakdown of the fees to expect. (Air Canada and Midwest provide free blankets, for example, while Virgin America’s sleep set, which includes a pillow, blanket, sleep mask, and earplugs, will set you back $12.) Kayak.com also offers a useful chart.

3) Do your comparison shopping before you buy a ticket with a fee guide nearby. You might think that a $300 roundtrip ticket from San Franscisco to Austin is a great deal. But if the airline will also charge you $50 for your two checked bags, $8 for a meal, and $15 for the seat you want, you might be better off getting a slightly more expensive ticket on a more all-inclusive airline. Or, just be sure to bring your own food and blanket along for the ride.

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The bottom line: Consumers who do their own research in advance can avoid many travel fees. Since fee details can be hard to track down on airline sites, use comparison charts such as those on SmarterTravel.com or kayak.com.

Get more money tips at the Alpha Consumer blog, www.usnews.com/alpha.