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Airline Fees: 13 Best & Worst Airlines When Traveling in the U.S.

By Jacqueline Curtis

airline feesLast October, the members of my large family made their way back to Toronto, Ontario for Thanksgiving. After the week’s festivities, we all said goodbye and headed back to the airport. My family headed home, but one of my brothers was completely stonewalled when he went to check into his flight. The airline agent told him that his suitcase was not only going to cost him an extra fee, but new weight restrictions meant that his 45-pound suitcase was now considered “oversize.”

You can imagine his surprise as he tried to figure out how to redistribute his stuff among his checked bag and carry-ons so that he only had to pay the checked bag fee without the oversize bag fee as well. The oversize baggage fee brought his ticket price up to the same amount I paid – so that major discount he scored? It ended up being more of a hassle than anything, especially since he had to pay to have some of his things shipped to his home.

What seemed like a great deal on airline tickets quickly became an expensive mistake as his savings were quickly eaten up by nickel-and-dime fees imposed by the airline. Soon, any money saved by booking a cheap airline ticket deal was gone, and I learned a lot more about airline fees and how they can add up.

Fees of Major Airlines

I will admit that I felt a little smug when I heard about my brother’s ordeal. When something is too good to be true – such as half-price airline fare – it probably is. But as I started researching the various fees that airlines charge, I was flabbergasted.

An annual report for Spirit Airlines noted that in 2013, the budget airline reaped more than $668 million in non-ticket revenue, increasing that category from a little over $2 per passenger to more than $50 per passenger. And they aren’t the only ones cashing in on high fees – airlines are charging extra for things such as perks, baggage, and even extra legroom.

So what can you do when looking for airline ticket deals? If you want to avoid cracking open your suitcase in the check-in line or finding unexpected charges along the way, your best bet is to educate yourself on which airlines are the worst offenders for fees, and how to spot a fare sale from a hidden-fee nightmare. Knowing the most common fees for domestic flights can help you decide which airlines are giving you the real deal, and which are nickel-and-diming you to recoup the discount.

1. Carry-on Luggage

Many domestic airlines allow passengers two carry-on pieces of luggage: a carry-on bag (that meets certain size requirements) and a personal item, such as a laptop, purse, or briefcase. The thought process is that since the airline never has to handle to bag, they don’t need to charge extra fees for that handling. Unfortunately, some airlines are charging a premium for you to carry your own bag onto the plane, as well as adding fees if you want to use the overhead compartment.

Luckily, only budget airlines currently charge for a carry-on, including Allegiant and Spirit. Currently, major domestic airlines allow you to bring on your own bag for free. But be aware – they might be more stringent about size rules, causing you to check your bag if it doesn’t fit in the overhead storage, adding fees to your expenses.

Airline Fees

  •  AirTran: Free
  • Alaska: Free
  • Allegiant: $10 to $35 if checked online, and $35 to $75 at the airport
  • American: Free
  • Delta: Free
  • Frontier: Free
  • Hawaiian: Free
  • JetBlue: Free
  • Southwest: Free
  • Spirit: $25 to $30 if you’re a member of the Fare Club, and $35 to $40 for nonmembers if checked online ($50 and $100, respectively, if checked at the gate)
  • United: Free
  • US Airways: Free
  • Virgin America: Free

2. Checked Bags

There’s a huge range of how much is considered to be a normal price for checked bags. In the past, the norm was that your first checked bag was free, with fees only occasionally being charged for additional bags.

Today, a free checked bag is the exception rather than the rule, and can really make a dent in that airfare discount. Always read the fine print and know what the airline charges for first and second checked bags (along with size and weight requirements) before you ever confirm your airline reservations.

Airline Fees (First Checked Bag)

  • AirTran: $25
  • Alaska: $25
  • Allegiant: $14 to $35 if purchased online, $50 to $75 at the airport
  • American: $25
  • Delta: $25
  • Frontier: $20 online, $25 at airport check-in
  • Hawaiian: $25
  • JetBlue: Free
  • Southwest: Free
  • Spirit: $25 for Fare Club members and $30 to 35 for nonmembers during online checkout ($45 if checked at the reservation desk in the airport, and $100 if checked at the gate)
  • United: $0 to $25 flying international versus domestic
  • US Airways: $0 to $25 flying international versus domestic
  • Virgin America: $0 with refundable fare, $25 other

Airline Fees (Second Checked Bag):

  • AirTran: $35
  • Alaska: $25
  • Allegiant: $14 to $35 if purchased online, $50 to $75 at the airport
  • American: $35
  • Delta: $35
  • Frontier: $30
  • Hawaiian: $35
  • JetBlue: $40
  • Southwest: Free
  • Spirit: $30 to $35 for Fare Club members, $40 to $45 for nonmembers
  • United: $35
  • US Airways: $35
  • Virgin America: $25

3. Overweight and Oversize Baggage

Here is where it’s imperative that you read an airline’s FAQs before you purchase that ticket, as what airlines consider to be “overweight” or “oversize” baggage varies greatly. It’s up to you, the consumer, to take the time to get to know the requirements.

While many airlines use the standard of 50 pounds for your baggage weight limit, some are up to 10 pounds less, such as Spirit and Allegiant. This discrepancy can make a huge difference in your packing decisions. Therefore, it’s crucial that you know the limits of the airline before you go to the airport. That way, if you’re a heavy packer, you can choose an airline that won’t penalize you.

Airline Fees: 

  • AirTran: $75 for baggage weighing more than 51 pounds
  • Alaska: $75 for baggage weighing more than 51 pounds
  • Allegiant: $50 over 41 pounds, $75 over 71 pounds
  • American: $100 for baggage weighing more than 51 pounds
  • Delta: $100 for baggage weighing more than 51 pounds
  • Frontier: $75 for baggage weighing more than 51 pounds
  • Hawaiian: $50 for baggage weighing more than 51 pounds
  • JetBlue: $50 for baggage weighing more than 51 pounds
  • Southwest: $75 for baggage weighing more than 51 pounds
  • Spirit: $25 over 41 pounds, $50 over 51 pounds
  • United: $100 for baggage weighing more than 51 pounds
  • US Airways: $90 for baggage weighing more than 51 pounds
  • Virgin America: $50 for baggage weighing more than 51 pounds

baggage claim

4. Snacks and Drinks

While free food was once standard on flights, today you can count yourself lucky if you score a bag of peanuts. Not only do most airlines now offer some type of food for sale, many don’t even offer any complimentary snacks or drinks. Keeping this in mind, you can decide whether to carry aboard your own food and beverages, or to pay the extra expense for a soft drink and some snacks. Just remember that many airlines no longer accept cash, so you may have to use a credit or debit card.

Airline Fees (Food):

  • AirTran: Free snacks
  • Alaska: $6 to $8 snacks and meals
  • Allegiant: $1 to $13 snacks and meals
  • American: $3+ snacks and meals
  • Delta: Free snacks, paid meals
  • Frontier: $3 to $7 snacks and meals
  • Hawaiian: $6 to $12 snacks and meals
  • JetBlue: Free snacks, paid meals
  • Southwest: Free snacks
  • Spirit: $1 to $10 for snacks and meals
  • United: Free snacks, paid meals
  • US Airways: $3 to $8 snacks and meals
  • Virgin America: $3 to $9 snacks and meals

Airline Fees (Soft Drinks/Alcoholic and Specialty Drinks)

  • AirTran: Free/$5 to $6
  • Alaska: Free/$6
  • Allegiant: $2 to $7 for drinks, including alcoholic beverages and soft drinks
  • American: Free/$6 to $7
  • Delta: Free/$5 to $7
  • Frontier: Free/$5 to $12
  • Hawaiian: Free/$6.50 to $12
  • JetBlue: Free/$6 to $9
  • Southwest: Free/$5
  • Spirit: $1 to $15 for drinks, including alcoholic beverages and soft drinks
  • United: Free/$7 to $16
  • US Airways: Free/$1+
  • Virgin America: Free/$6 to $8

5. Priority Seating and Seat Selection

First class and coach: Those used to be the only two classifications for seating types. Of course, in their endless quest to lower fares and make their money back in fees, some airlines have taken to labeling some of the seats throughout the coach cabin as the more desirable spots. Whether it’s a coveted window spot, the extra legroom available in the exit row, or some other characteristic, you might find yourself paying extra for the privilege of choosing a specific seat. Some airlines have also allowed for more legroom throughout the cabin to charge a premium for more breathing space as well.

When factoring in pricing for legroom or preferred seating, keep in mind that most airline websites list the price per segment. That means that if you have a return ticket and you have one connection, you should multiply the number by four, since there are four “segments” to your travel. This can seriously inflate the pricing of an otherwise cheap ticket.

Airlines price preferred seating (extra legroom, sitting in the emergency exit, or near the front of the plane) based on the length of each leg, so your price will vary based on route. The airlines will show you the price for your leg during the checkout process, so you can decide whether the extra cost is worth it based on seat availability, location, and length of flight.

Airline Fees:

  • AirTran: $10 to $30 to choose your seat
  • Alaska: n/a
  • Allegiant: $0 to $75 to choose your seat
  • American: $4 to $99 for preferred seats
  • Delta $9 to $180 for preferred seats
  • Frontier: $5 to $15 for preferred seats, $15 to $100 for extra leg room
  • Hawaiian: $60 to $100 for preferred seats
  • JetBlue: $10 to $99 for extra legroom
  • Southwest: n/a
  • Spirit: $1 to $50 to choose your seat, $12 to $199 for extra legroom
  • United: $9 to $299 for preferred seats
  • US Airways: Free to choose seats, $5 to $99 for preferred
  • Virgin America: $29 to $129 for preferred seats

6. Priority Boarding

Hoping to get onboard before the other passengers? You’ll pay for the privilege. Priority boarding means you get to your seat before everyone else, which can be a major benefit for people traveling with kids or those hoping to avoid the race to the gate. But almost all airlines charge for that priority boarding, unless you have special needs and require assistance to get on and off the plane.

Airline Fees

  • AirTran: $10 priority boarding
  • Alaska: n/a
  • Allegiant: $4 to $12 priority boarding
  • American: $9 to $40 priority boarding
  • Delta: $10 priority boarding
  • Frontier: n/a
  • Hawaiian: n/a
  • JetBlue: n/a
  • Southwest: Up to $40 priority boarding
  • Spirit: n/a
  • United: n/a
  • US Airways: n/a
  • Virgin America: n/a

7. Ticket Booking, Changes, and Cancellations

Looking to save time by managing your entire air reservation online? You might unwittingly end up paying more. It’s ludicrous, especially when you factor in the savings in resources by big airlines when users avoid calling customer service in favor of using the airline website to book. Still, even if you get to book for free, keep in mind that making changes to your reservation or canceling it altogether can rack up some serious fees along the way.

Airline Fees (Booking):

  • AirTran: Free to book in person or online, $15 over the phone
  • Alaska: Free to book in person or online, $15 over the phone
  • Allegiant: $10 per segment all methods, plus $15 convenience fee
  • American: Free to book online, $25 over the phone, $35 in person
  • Delta: Free to book online, $25 over the phone, $35 in person
  • Frontier: Free to book online, over the phone, or in person
  • Hawaiian: Free to book online, $25 over the phone, $35 in person
  • JetBlue: Free to book online, $25 over the phone, $35 in person
  • Southwest: Free to book online, over the phone, or in person
  • Spirit: Free to book online, $10 over the phone, $16.99 in person
  • United: Free to book online, $25 over the phone, $35 in person
  • US Airways: Free to book online, $25 over the phone, $35 in person
  • Virgin America: Free to book in person or online, $20 over the phone

Airline Fees (for Reservation Changes or Cancellations on Refundable Flights Only):

  • AirTran: $150, $50 same-day
  • Alaska: Free if 60 days+ before flight, $125 if less than 60 days, $25 same-day
  • Allegiant: $50 to $75 per segment
  • American: $75 to $200, plus $50 fee if ticket issued by outside agency (such as an online booking website other than American Airlines)
  • Delta: $150 to $50, $50 same-day
  • Frontier: $75 to $125, $25 to $100 same-day
  • Hawaiian: $200
  • JetBlue: $75 to $150
  • Southwest: Free, but will receive difference or refund in future credits
  • Spirit: $115 online, $125 over the phone
  • United: $200, $50 same-day
  • US Airways: $150 to $200
  • Virgin America: $75 to $150$25 to $50 same-day

If you’ve booked a nonrefundable flight, you may be able to make changes for a fee without losing the cost of the entire ticket. However, cancellations on a nonrefundable flight are – you guessed it – nonrefundable.
airline ticket

8. WiFi

While it’s pretty common for flights to offer complimentary WiFi, don’t count on free Internet to help you pass the time. Complimentary WiFi is usually offered during the first leg of a trip and is sometimes restricted to certain sites and services, so you can’t rely on getting a free connection. Instead, if you must travel with WiFi, factor it into your final ticket price. You should also remember that since you’ll need to reconnect on each aircraft, pricing is usually per leg and that the connection is often throttled, so you may not get fast download or surfing speeds.

Typically, larger airlines are your best bet for actually scoring WiFi, but you can always check the carrier website to see if your particular aircraft has WiFi. In my experience, the carriers most likely to have WiFi onboard are Southwest(around 70% of flights), Delta (almost all domestic flights), American (available on all 767-200 and 737 aircraft), and Virgin America (all planes). The worst airlines for reliable WiFi are Frontier (only on Embraer 190s), and JetBlue (very limited aircraft, but promises more in the future).

Of course, as WiFi popularity increases, you can expect more airlines to offer it on more aircraft – for a fee, of course. Keep in mind that WiFi costs are often per leg, so you could end up paying several times throughout the duration of your air travel.

Airline Fees

  • AirTran: $4.95 to $19.95 for mobile devices, $11.00 to $49.00 for computer devices
  • Alaska: $4.95 – $19.95 for mobile devices, $11.00 to $49.00 for computer devices
  • Allegiant: n/a
  • American: $4.95 – $19.95 for mobile devices, $11.00 to $49.00 for computer devices
  • Delta: $4.95 – $19.95 for mobile devices, $11.00 to $49.00 for computer devices
  • Frontier: Very limited, monthly pass for $25, all other prices vary
  • Hawaiian: n/a
  • JetBlue: Free, but limited access and throttling
  • Southwest: $2 to $12
  • Spirit: n/a
  • United: $4.95 – $19.95 for mobile devices, $11.00 to $49.00 for computer devices
  • US Airways: $4.95 to $19.95 for mobile devices, $11.00 to $49.00 for computer devices
  • Virgin America: $4.95 to $19.95 for mobile devices, $11.00 to $49.00 for computer devices

9. Traveling with Pets

If you’re planning on bringing Fido along with you, then you need to factor in the extra cost of traveling with your pet. If you have a small dog or cat that can travel in a crate that meets size requirements to fit under the seat in front of you, your pet may be able to stay with you in the cabin. Larger dogs need to fly in the kennels in cargo storage, but only some airlines have the capability to store live animals in the cargo area, so you’ll need to choose an airline with the capacity when bringing your Great Dane along for the ride. Either way, you must pay extra since airlines see flying with an animal as extra work and handling for their employees. Typically, you have pay more to have your pet fly cargo.

Airline Fees (Cabin):

  • AirTran: $95
  • Alaska: $100
  • Allegiant: $100 per segment
  • American: $125
  • Delta: $125
  • Frontier: $75 to $125
  • Hawaiian: $175
  • JetBlue: $100
  • Southwest: $95
  • Spirit: $100
  • United: $125
  • US Airways
  • Virgin America:  $100

Airline Fees (Cargo): 

  • AirTran: n/a
  • Alaska: $100
  • Allegiant: n/a
  • American: $150 to $175
  • Delta: $200
  • Frontier: n/a
  • Hawaiian: $225
  • JetBlue: n/a
  • Southwest: n/a
  • Spirit: n/a
  • United: Rates vary, check with reservations
  • US Airways: n/a
  • Virgin America: n/a

Final Word

Unfortunately, it’s almost impossible to pay the exact price advertised on the airfare booking website. By the time your trip is over, you will have spent extra cash on everything from baggage to pretzels. The only way to avoid being nickel-and-dimed during your experience is to know which fees will be in place and which will apply to your circumstances.

In some cases, you can plan ahead to avoid the fees, such as by packing your own lunch instead of eating the food offered on the plane. Still, some fees – such as check-in and reservation fees, for example – are charged no matter what you do. Knowing which airlines charge extra fees can help you see past that bargain-basement fare and choose the schedule and price that is the most transparent.

Which airline fees have you encountered that could have been avoided?

Jacqueline Curtis
Jacqueline Curtis is an experienced style expert, and she focuses on getting high fashion on a tight budget. She writes for several online publications, including her own fashion blog, How Not to Dress Like a Mom, and specializes in fashion, finance, health and fitness, and parenting. Jae grew up in Toronto, Canada, but now resides in Utah with her husband, two kids, and prized shoe collection.

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  • Mom Cents

    Southwest is my favorite airline because the first 2 checked bags are FREE. Followed by the fact that I can have some control on where I seat by checking in as close to 24 hrs in advance as possible…that will put you in group A or front part of group B…where there is still choice seating. SW flies to most destinations I frequent. My other favorite from my NE days is Jet Blue, but unfortunately, they are not in STL.

  • http://blog.promotionalcodes.com/ Noah Henry

    Here’s a tip: for brief domestic travels, find TSA-exempt toiletries. Find small bottles (roughly 1.5 fluid ounces) to fill in yourtoiletries like shampoo, toothpaste and lotion for your short travels. Instead of paying $50 dollars for luggage, find these tiny bottles of liquid water enhancers sold at your local groceries store. They will be spacious enough to hold what you need while small enough to make it through security in your carry-on. That way, you won’t have to pay any baggage fees!

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