How to avoid the worst of the airline fees this summer

PHOTO: A woman working on a laptop computer in this undated photo.Getty Images
A woman working on a laptop computer in this undated photo.

Good news! As of last month, Spirit passengers who wait to pay their carry-on fee at the gate get a break: What once cost $100 is now a mere $65.

While you’re digesting that, let’s look at other fees and ways to avoid them.

Change fees

These are the worst and usually biggest 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 nonrefundable tickets; refundable airfares are 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: A Department of Transportation rule says shoppers may 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 offer meals in economy on some routes. Others offer a little something free like soft drinks and a tiny package of peanuts or pretzels, but you won’t get even that on Spirit, Frontier or other ultradiscount 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, take some food from home. You won’t look odd, because everyone does it. Supersavvy travelers take an empty plastic bottle through security to fill at a water fountain or 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. (Passengers with those tickets may not take carry-ons and 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 take bags onto 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 ultracheap airlines.

Use a carry-on, no matter what it costs: If you are allowed to take a regular-size carry-on, do so 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 seat, 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 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 look 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, which cover such things as security and fuel costs, but you can mitigate them by always comparing airfares.

No single airline always has the best deal, so if you don’t compare, you could pay too much. 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.