Which airline is worst for fees? I'll get to that, but let's go right to No. 1 on my list of the six things airlines don't especially want you to know about fees:
#1. Airline fees are worse than tattoos - they're permanent.
Those drunken Facebook photos you wish you'd never posted? They may haunt you on the internet forever. Airline fees aren't going anywhere either, for a more old-fashioned reason: They simply make too much money. In the 12-month period that ended last October, U.S. airlines made a staggering $8.7 billion in baggage and rebooking fees, which doesn't even count all the revenue from sandwiches or blankets and pillows or upgraded seating.
Right now, only two airlines in this country give you a free bag: JetBlue and Southwest. Actually, Southwest gives you two but don't hold your breath waiting for free bags on its merger partner, AirTran; Southwest just announced those customers will keep paying for big suitcases at least into 2014.
#2. Airline fees keep changing - but no one tells us.
One month you're saying, "Good-bye, Kalispell; Hello, Vegas!" as you hop aboard Allegiant with a free carry-on; the next month, you're forking over $35 for that little tote. Welcome to the wacky world of changing fees. Not so long ago, Delta and some of the other big carriers gave you a $2 break for paying checked-bag fees online instead of at the airport. No more. And while you still get a first checked-bag on JetBlue for free, the cost of the second recently jumped from $30 to $40. Didn't hear about any of this, did you?
#3. Airline fees play hide-and-seek.
Let's play detective. Go to American Airlines' website (and this is just an example, I'm not singling them out). See anything about fees there? Nope. So start by clicking the small tab "travel information." Then click "baggage information." We're getting oser; now click "baggage allowance," then "view all itineraries." About four paragraphs down you'll see the highlighted words "charges may apply." Click that and bingo! A list of bag fees at last. However, if you're looking for pet fees or unaccompanied minor charges, more clicks await.
Sometimes even the airlines don't seem to know all their fees. After I wrote about getting dinged for an overweight carry-on bag on Hawaiian, the airline's p.r. folks contacted me to say, We don't charge for that. Oh, no? I showed them my receipt.
#4. Worst airline for fees: Spirit
Am I saying Spirit is the worst airline to fly? Absolutely not. Millions love Spirit's rock-bottom fares, but this bare-bones operation seems to defy all laws of economics except for the catch: Spirit's "optional" fees.
This airline's definition of "optional" is pretty elastic. Do you consider it an option or necessity to pack a few clothes when traveling? Florida-based Spirit thinks it's an option since they charge for any luggage, from the heaviest suitcase to a feather-light carry-on. And starting Nov. 6, your Spirit carry-on bag could cost you $100.
Yes, one hundred bucks - if you're foolish enough to pay at the very last minute at the airport gate. Don't try an end-run around the fee, hoping no one at the gate will notice your tote; they'll notice. And you will pay.
Kate Hanni, executive director of the nonprofit Flyers Rights organization, told me customer service is pretty much dead at Spirit; in her view, Spirit passengers are just "meat in a seat." It sometimes seems like Spirit CEO Ben Baldanza is the living embodiment of the old adage "There's no such thing as bad publicity." Just last week, he sealed his carrier's reputation for rabid penny-pinching by denying a dying Vietnam veteran's request for a ticket refund (although he eventually caved under an avalanche of horrendous publicity).
That said, if you're looking for the lowest possible airfare, Spirit may have it. Just don't expect a free Coke or carry-on.
#5. Airline fees are for the "poor" - the "rich" don't pay them.
You know the old saying: The rich get richer. In other words, if you can afford that airline-branded credit card, which might cost as much as $450 a year in card fees, you will get a bonus of free bags.
Or maybe you fly business class, or spend really big bucks on first; with the free gourmet meals, you'll have no worries about food fees. Or maybe you can afford frequent trips to faraway vacations; your elite status in miles programs will eliminate all kinds of fees, especially for bags. File this one under "Sometimes life isn't fair." But hang on a sec, and take a look at No. 6.
#6. Airline fees are like traffic jams - you can avoid them if you're smart.
Avoid the $50 round-trip checked-bag fee on most airlines by not checking a bag.* It really is that simple. I have gone to Europe with a carry-on (so did my wife) and it worked out fine. Plus no worries about lost bags. The key here is a little planning. Figure out what you need for your trip and what can you do without. My recommendations:
• Pack light; buy shampoo and weighty toiletries at your destination. • Don't buy airplane food. Your own is better and cheaper. • Don't drink alcohol; soft drinks and coffee are free (except on Spirit, of course). • Don't ask for a blanket; airlines that still have them will charge a fee, so wear a sweater.
And don't pay for a better seat unless this is very important to you. Instead, select your seat when you purchase your ticket, but if it's not a good one, keep checking back online since better seats are often released over time. Continue to check back up to and including the day of departure, and at the airport kiosk. And be sure to check-in for your flight at the earliest moment allowed.
*My advice for Spirit flyers is just the opposite: Check your bag to avoid the more expensive carry-on fees.