Photo: Markus Mainka/Shutterstock

How to: Avoid Airline Fees When Traveling

by Diana O'Gilvie Nov 13, 2011
Tips from a MatadorU student and industry insider on how to get around baggage fees, fly standby for free, protect your passenger rights, and more.

MODERN AIR TRAVEL involves costs that go way beyond buying a ticket. I’m sure you have your own tricks for finding cheap airfare. But what about after you’ve booked?

I’ve been employed in aviation for a little over 13 years. I started out as a ticket agent, then gate agent, baggage service agent, and now I’m a flight attendant. The industry landscape has changed dramatically during that time, but for all the new fees there are just as many ways to get around them.

1. Choosing a seat

Do you like to stretch out? That luxury can cost you $14-$109 on domestic carriers.

To avoid this, check in online the day before travel; you can choose a seat for free at that time. This is a gamble, because you may get stuck with a middle seat. However, it can work out for the best.

I flew on KLM from Amsterdam to New York and managed to snag an Economy Plus aisle seat when coach was full. I didn’t pay for the upgrade. The seats were wider and I could cross my legs comfortably, and since we were directly behind business class I got to use their bathroom with all its fancy soaps and lotions.

Bonus tip: JetBlue’s Even More Space seats aren’t always booked, so standby passengers often get these at the last minute when the flight boards.

2. Going standby

Nearly all carriers charge a standby fee, with JetBlue being an exception. Their policy is fairly flexible and allows passengers to list standby for free, but only on domestic flights and only on the flight that leaves immediately prior to what they’ve got reserved.

For example, if you booked a flight from JFK to Fort Lauderdale for 4pm today, you can get on the standby list for the 3pm flight free of charge. However, if you want to list standby for the 9am flight, that will incur a $40 fee on JetBlue.

If you don’t get on the earlier flight, you won’t lose your confirmed reservation for the later one. But since you can only be checked in for one flight at a time, you’ll have to check in again for your original flight.

Allow ample time to get to the airport to try your luck for standby. The list is “first come, first board,” so the earlier you check in, the better your chances of making the flight.

3. Changing a ticket

Of all the airline fees out there, this one is probably hardest to avoid. Sure, life is unpredictable, but do your best to solidify your travel plans before you book.

Or, pay a slightly higher ticket price for a refundable ticket; this costs more up front, but beats getting hit with a change fee + fare difference for a new ticket.

Bonus tip: Southwest is the only airline that allows you to change your flight for free.

4. Missing your flight

When I was a gate agent, I encountered many people who missed their flight for one reason or another. The alarm didn’t go off, traffic…the dog ate my ticket…

You’d be surprised how many airlines empower individual employees to make decisions like waiving a change fee. I did it. Simply ask the ticket counter agent or supervisor to have mercy and help you save a few bucks.

Unfortunately, you can’t avoid the increased fare difference — ticket prices are determined by an authority beyond the confines of the airport. However, this does help your case when asking for a break. The combined price of a change fee + increase in fare can oftentimes be unaffordable. Airlines need to fill those seats, so agents have the authority to waive fees.

5. Paying for baggage

Consider the scenario of checking a 70lb bag on a Delta flight. Their fee is $90 for an overweight bag, plus the standard first-checked-bag fee of $25. That one bag will cost you $115, and who knows if it’ll be waiting for you on the carousel at your destination.

Ship that same bag via FedEx and it will cost you around $75. There are other services that ship luggage door to door, like Luggage Express and Carry My Luggage. With them, you avoid the hassle of schlepping your bag out of the house, into the cab or subway, and dragging it across the airport.

If you must travel with your bags, pack light. As a flight attendant, I have to pack for four- to seven-day trips, preparing for all kinds of weather, in just one carry-on. I’ve done trips in the wintertime that took me to Buffalo, then onward to Fort Lauderdale the next day.

When checking multiple bags, spread the load of heavier items around. Keep it simple with a few stylish accessories and lightweight fabrics and you won’t be tipping the scale. I have more tips on how to pack like a flight attendant on my blog.

A dirty little airport secret is that many luggage scales aren’t calibrated properly. Buy a hanging scale for $20 so you’ll leave home knowing what your bags actually weigh. If there’s a discrepancy at check-in, ask to weigh your luggage at another counter.

Also, make sure to use the airline’s free baggage options to their full potential. Car seats and strollers are considered “assistive devices” and incur no extra charge. They’re gate checked by the aircraft door during boarding. I’ve seen passengers gate check car seats and strollers inside large duffel cases and sneak in a few items without getting called out.

If you’re checking sporting equipment, consider breaking it down. Cyclists, for example, will pack the bicycle frame inside an unmarked box and the wheels in another box to avoid some airlines’ “sports equipment” fee. If you’re not worried about damage, putting the gear inside normal luggage is even better. I once had two body builders come on the plane with 50lb weights and no other carry-on.

Bonus tip: If you’ve got the coin, upgrade to first class, as many first-class tickets are exempt from baggage fees. Just be sure to double check this with your carrier first.

6. Knowing your rights

Print out the airline’s contract of carriage, which details its policies and responsibilities to ticket holders. Instances of waiving change fees are also outlined here.

I once met a lady on a flight who was very proud of herself for doing this. A few months after she’d bought her ticket, the airline changed its baggage policy and increased the fees, but she was able to check her three bags at the price listed in the contract.

If she hadn’t had the contract of carriage as proof, the airline probably wouldn’t have honored the correct policy. In fact, she said the ticket counter agent had to get a supervisor who then got a manager to confirm the proper fee structure.

7. Canceling your ticket

Airline cancellation policies are quite stringent; it will generally cost you more than your original ticket. Buying travel insurance represents one safeguard for this. Most insurance costs 4%-10% of the ticket price, and some includes a “Cancel for Any Reason” rider for a little extra.

Be aware that you may only be reimbursed 75% of the total ticket price. And, while weather is a major cause of flight delays, service interruptions, and cancellations, it is not covered by travel insurance.

A couple fees to expect, and learn how to avoid, in the future
  • No more free rides for infants.
  • Carry-on baggage fee (yeah, I’m looking at you, Spirit!). So far they’re the only ones doing this, but despite the public outcry, other airlines are sure to follow.

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