As well-respected travel advisors, we spend most of the year telling people how to avoid paying airline fees. “Hacks,” you might call them. And during the first 47 weeks of the year, that is all sound advice.
Then comes the final week of November, when people who only fly once a year clog airports, and all the rules go out the window. Whereas paying an airline for anything extra most of the time is insulting, during the holidays it can make the difference between smooth travel and a nightmare. If there was ever a time to pay for convenience, this would be it; the only key is knowing which fees are absolutely worth paying — and which are still a waste of money.
We spoke to Gabe Saglie, senior editor at Travelzoo, and he told us about seven airline fees that are wise investments during the holidays.
1. Airport lounges
During the holidays, bad weather combines with the biggest crowds of the year to create terminals with no seats, no space at the bar, and no place anyone would call “relaxing.” This is why the oasis of an airport lounge is an invaluable escape.
“It’s an investment in sanity,” said Saglie. “If you’ve got a family, having access to a lounge can alleviate a lot of that stress.”
Most major airlines have lounges that offer day passes for $39-$59. That includes food, an open bar, separate Wi-Fi, television, and big, comfortable seats. Of course, during peak times many airline lounges limit access to those with annual memberships, which can cost upward of $500 a year. If you don’t want to spend that much — and you’re in a large enough airport — ask the airport information desk if they have a private airport or third-party lounge, nearly all of which will sell day passes.
2. Priority boarding
Overhead bin space on airlines is at a bigger premium than Cuban Wi-Fi. With people crowding around gates, knowing you’ll be on the plane first can be a major stress-reliever. Especially when planes are running full and anyone past Group 5 generally has to gate check.
Though many of us skip over the option to pay for priority boarding when we check in for a flight, the holidays may be the time to read that screen a little more closely.
“You want to look for it, there’s a page people skip through to avoid fees, but during the check-in process, airlines will usually offer you an opportunity to better your experience at the airport and buy yourself in to Group 2, which guarantees you bin space,” Saglie said.
The price starts at about $20, and goes up depending on the length of your flight and the size of the aircraft. Some options offer expedited security as well, through the airlines’ premium lanes. Though it’s not the same as TSA PreCheck, it can still save a ton of time.
3. TSA PreCheck/CLEAR
Even for non-frequent fliers, TSA PreCheck is an invaluable investment. The ability to breeze by epic holiday security lines is worth a lot more than $85 for five years.
However, during busy times even PreCheck lines can be infuriatingly long, even if they do move quickly. For those who want to never wait in a security line there’s CLEAR, a private, TSA-approved company that basically expedites you to the beginning of any security line using fingerprints and retinal scanners. You can find it at over 35 airports and some sports stadiums. You don’t need TSA PreCheck to use it, and for $179 a year, it’s an excellent option if you fly often.
4. Baggage delivery
Saglie admitted he never checks a bag when he flies for work, but when traveling with his wife and three children, checking a bag is unavoidable. Ditto for anyone bringing Christmas presents larger than a gift card, or traveling with fine wine in containers over three ounces. Some airlines deliver checked bags fairly quickly. Others allow you to watch an entire World Series game in the time it takes for your bag to show up.
If you’d prefer to spend time with family instead of in the baggage claim, most airlines offer baggage delivery. Airlines partner with third-party companies who wait for your luggage, take it off the belt, and deliver it to you within a few hours. If you live within a reasonable distance from the airport, it’ll cost you anywhere from $35-50 a bag, though it’ll be more if you’re over an hour away.
“During the holidays, wait time at baggage claim is exorbitant,” Saglie said. “It’s paying for not wasting time, and if you need to get out of the airport quickly but still have to check a bag, it’s worth considering.”
Airlines sometimes offer this service when buying your ticket, but you can also ask a ticketing agent when you check in. If you tell the airline you want to give it money, people are amazingly helpful.
5. Better seats
We’ve said it already but it warrants repeating: Planes are packed during the holidays. And if you’re a person of size, or just a person who likes the concept of personal space, paying for a bigger, better seat might be worth it this time of year.
“A lot of people say they’ll never do this,” Saglie said, stating some prefer to play the seat-assignment game and hope to luck into an exit row. “But when you’re dealing with holiday planes more packed than usual, this is the season where the idea of paying a little more to get out of row 39 is a good idea.”
Not only does moving up in the cabin get you off the plane up to half an hour faster (for those with tight connections), but it can also land you in the plush Economy Plus sections, with more legroom, priority boarding, and sometimes free drinks. That extra legroom is especially welcomed when you’re stuck in an hour-long line for takeoff, or waiting out a weather delay on the tarmac.
“Families might want to pay more for bulkhead seats,” he added. “The kids can kind of hang out up there without bothering anyone in front of them.”
Those fees run anywhere from $19-$179 depending on the length of the flight and size of the aircraft.
6. Business class
We’re not all Uncle Pennybags who can just say things like “It’s worth an extra $1,000 to get a good night’s sleep on my flight to Spain.” But the holidays are the exception to nearly every flying rule, and it might be the one time you want to look into business class.
“This is slightly counterintuitive, but during holidays, business travel shuts down,” Saglie explained, “Where [business-class fares] are exorbitant during the year, during holidays, pricing for upgrade seats come down. Not to say it’s going to be cheap to get a first-class seat from New York City to London, but it will be a more affordable option.”
Since holiday coach tickets are already outrageously expensive, the difference might not be as much as you think. And since first-class tickets come with free bags, a better seat, lounge access, and priority boarding, you’re paying for a lot of the other convenience fees on this list, too.
Saglie said not to look for any first-class deals on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving or other high-volume days. But traveling days like Christmas Eve or New Year’s morning might land you in the front of the plane for a minimal upcharge.
7. Valet parking
In the Uber era, parking at the airport isn’t quite the necessary expense that it once was. But during the jam-packed holiday season, surge pricing and painfully long waits for rides can be the norm. And if you’re only traveling for a few days, parking your car at the airport can be faster, easier, and cheaper.
It gets even faster and easier if you opt for valet parking. Though it sounds like an unnecessary luxury, it only runs about $19-21 a day, and allows you to have your car delivered to you curbside at the airport as soon as you have your bags.
“You call them, you get your car, and you’re off,” he said. “You’re not waiting for shuttles to the parking lot. You’re not paying for parking at the airport, which is often more expensive.”
Be sure to book early, as valet lots fill up during the holidays.