Buying a Ticket? Beware Hidden Fees of Low-Cost Airlines

PHOTO: An airplane agent handing an airplane ticket to a passenger in this undated file photo.

Do you fly the cheapies? Perhaps I should be more politically correct and say, "low-cost carriers" or "discount airlines," but by any name, they are the Scrooges of the aviation world.

Zany names prevail: There's South Africa's Mango, Morocco's Jet4you, the Philippines' Zest Airways, India's JetLite, Yemen's Felix Airways and my personal favorite, the Hungarian-headquartered Wizz Air.

All play up their low fares, as do the U.S. discounters, which also play up the little things that set them apart: JetBlue and Virgin America boast frills like seatback screens, while defiantly Spartan Southwest offers two free checked-bags.

But when you get right down to it, for the passengers, it's all about the price of the ticket. And when it comes to the cheapest of the cheap, the most flagrantly frugal, the paradigm of parsimony -- two names stand apart: Ireland's Ryanair and the USA's Spirit.

You won't find cheaper prices than these. Or will you?

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Bottom line: Spirit and Ryanair often have the cheapest airfares. But sometimes, they don't. If you fail to compare prices, you might miss out on a better deal on another airline, and that includes the non-discounters.

Plus, consumers have to pay attention to the details of any airfare offering. Like Spirit's $9 specials. Now, a $9 flight is beyond cheap, but sadly, such bargains cannot be had on Spirit (or any other airline). Here's what you may not know about these airfares:

$9 is the one-way price.

$9 fares are only available to $9 Fare Club members (annual dues: $59.95).

$9 fares do not include all taxes and fees.

Your $9 airfare could wind up costing you close to $100 or even much more because that last bullet is the important one: Forget the additional government fees. The big add-ons come from the carrier, and Spirit makes no bones about it, though it often employs sprightly marketing terms like "empowerment" to describe its fees.

As Spirit spokesman Misty Pinson said, "[Customers] only pay for what they use," which is why Spirit calls them "optional fees." Let's look at two of the bigger optional fees:

Spirit bag fees. There are no free bags on Spirit. In fact, your little carry-on can cost you more ($20 to $40) than checking a giant Samsonite ($18 to $43). Your option? Stuffing your pockets with clean underwear and a fresh shirt, I guess, or buy new clothes on arrival. Or wear what you wore on the plane.

Spirit Passenger usage fee. This newly hiked fee of $16.99 each-way "applies to most reservations." Translation: You pay nearly $34 for the privilege of booking a round-trip flight online. Your alternative is to drive out to the airport and book there for free. Not much of an option.

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