When I think back to the good old days of flying, I don’t think about sumptuous meals and attentive flight attendants; I think about how nice if was to be fee-free. Back then, all you had to do was find a deal and that was that. Now, we have to add in five dollars here, $20 there, and on and on.
However, there are some fees that can be considered good ones. Let’s take a look at ones you should pay, and ones you should dump.
Fees Worth Paying
Early boarding: ($15 and up) This can help ensure you’ll find space for your stuff in the overhead bin on a crowded plane. On Southwest, where there are no assigned seats, its $15 early can help improve your chance of getting an aisle or window. Check to see what your airline charges for early boarding and if it’s cheap enough, go ahead and pay. Tip: Check to see if you already get early boarding but don’t know it -- some airline-branded credit cards include this perk for free.
VIP Lounge pass: ($50 or more) The luxury of these lounges is appealing, along with the free food and drinks in serene surroundings. But the real advantage is having a dedicated airline agent in the lounge with you -- and this is especially helpful during flight delays, when you may be stuck in a line with a hundred or so other passengers.
Faster security ($85 to $100 in U.S.): The TSA PreCheck program costs $85 and is good for five years ($17 per year). We think this is a small price to pay for a speedier security experience, where shoes remain on as you access members-only checkpoint lanes. If you travel internationally at all, sign up for Global Entry ($100 for 5 years) which smooths your return through customs and includes PreCheck.
Fees to Dump
Change fee (up to $200 domestic, $400 international): Sometimes you can’t avoid the dreaded change fee but this may help. Be sure to re-read any information you type in during the course of booking a flight to check for mistakes, and this is especially important if you’re booking for a group. Make sure all birth dates are correct, all names are spelled right, and the travel dates are precisely when you plan to take-off and return. If there are any errors, you have just 24 hours from time of booking to make changes without incurring the fee. The only other time you’ll run into a bargain like this is if a storm is forecast and the airline pro-actively waives its change fees.
Seat fees ($5 to $100 or more): You do not have to pay this because you will always get a free seat; on some of the super-discount airlines, it will likely be a middle seat. Tip: After you buy your ticket, go back online every day to see if a ‘good’ free seat has become available; it’s been known to happen. Or, consider paying the fee if it’s just a few bucks. Or, when you get to the airport, ask the gate agent if she or he can help you. That happens, too, from time to time.
Bag fees: (from $50 and up) On large airlines, a carry-on is free for most economy passengers. On ultra-discount carriers, all bags will (usually) cost you, with one exception: a small backpack-type bag that fits under your seat. If your trip is short, this is the route to go.
Overweight fees: (from $200 and up) Overweight baggage fees are very expensive, and there is typically one fee for bags over 50 lbs. and a higher fee for bags over 70 lbs. Weigh your bags at home before you head to the airport.
Food and Drink (from $2 to $10 or so): You probably know free meals in coach are rare but some airlines won’t even give you a free Coke or cup of coffee or water. Bring an empty water bottle through security and fill it up after the checkpoint. And consider bringing food from home.