How to Get Around The Worst Airline Fee

PHOTO: Here are some suggestion for avoiding the worst airline fees.Getty Images
Here are some suggestion for avoiding the worst airline fees.

Worst airline fee ever? I nominate the "change fee." If you have to cancel a trip because you got sick, or maybe you suddenly realize days after you booked your flight that - OMG I bought my tickets for the wrong dates! - you will likely have to pay a change fee.

This is the worst fee because it's so expensive. Many U.S. airlines charge a whopping $150 change fee per ticket and on international routes it's a wallet-busting $250. So if someone in your family of four gets sick right before that June trip to Paris, you're out a thousand bucks.

Or more. Since ticket prices aren't static - and this year they've been rising steadily - you'll also have to pay the difference in price of your new airfare tickets along with the change fee, which is usually hundreds of dollars more.

Which brings up an interesting question: Ever wonder why the airlines can ding your credit card and send you the bill long before you've had a chance to use the product (seat) they've sold you? After all MasterCard and Visa regulations disallow billing before the product is shipped.

For better or worse you aren't the product being shipped on a plane; rather, the product is the ticket (contract) to be shipped.

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So what can you do about this worst airline fee ever? Some suggestions:

1. Think fast.

If the phrase, "We're from the government and we're here to help" has ever made you cross-eyed, here's a case where a U.S. agency is doing you a real service. Thanks to new regulations included in the U.S. Department of Transportation rule called, "Enhancing Airline Passenger Protections" - this went into effect in late January - shoppers now have 24 hours to change their minds after purchasing airfare without incurring the change fee.

True, most airlines let you do that before the new regulations, and the new rule does not include fares purchased within seven days of departure, but for most of us it provides a little breathing room. Next time you buy airline tickets, go back and check your reservation carefully: are the dates and times the ones you want? Is your name correct -- meaning, does it match the ID you'll use at the security check-point? Did you suddenly notice a cheap airfare? You've got a day to sort this all out, so use it.

2. Look for airlines with low or no change fees.

Couple of options here: Consider booking with Southwest and if you think you might need to change your ticket because this discount carrier is the lone U.S. airline with no change fee. That, and it's "Two Bags Free" policy are increasingly the only things that distinguish this airline from the legacy carriers (American, Delta, United and US Airways) since its "discount fares" get more expensive all the time (earlier this week, Southwest launched an airfare hike that was widely matched by the competition).

Other low-cost carriers generally have cheaper change fees than the legacy airlines. For example, Frontier only charges $50 per change fee, while JetBlue and Virgin America charge $100. Alaska charges $75 for online changes and $100 if you make the switch by phone.

3. Buy a non-refundable ticket or "change-your-mind" insurance

Refundable tickets are a much pricier option, maybe too pricy for some as well as being a pain to get your credit card (in two billing cycles) but you're guaranteed peace of mind if there's a sudden and unexpected cancelation. Frontier's Classic Plus fares are fully refundable, as are American's Economy Saver Fares, Delta's Flexible Fares and Virgin America's Main Cabin Select fares.

And United has a program (that was actually started by the now merged Continental) that offers a twist between non-refundable and refundable fares, that they call "FareLock". For a fee you can extend the 24 hour guarantee from 3 to 7 days to change your mind.

However, in many cases these get-your-money-back deals can cost you more than the change fee, though maybe not more than a change fee plus the fare difference. Think carefully before you make such a purchase.

4. Look for bundled-fee deals and change fee discounts

This may be the way to go if you require a few fee-based perks. Example: American's Boarding and Flexibility package gets you on the plane ahead of most flyers, which gives you first crack at that all-too-scarce overhead bin space if you use a carryon-on, plus it gives you a change fee discount of $75. JetBlue's Even More Space fares give you roomier seats, early boarding and refundable fares. Prices on all these bundled deals vary quite a bit depending on where you're flying but can be quite reasonable.

5. Flight insurance.

When it comes to any kind of insurance, caveat emptor. Be sure to read the fine print, then read it again and go over it a third time. Make sure what you think is covered is in fact covered.

6. When all else fails…

There's a reason they call the cheapest airfares non-refundable. That said, once in a blue moon, you may see an airline waive a change fee, particularly if there's a medical emergency and you have a doctor's report plus you are exceedingly polite, but do not count on this. You've heard the old saying, "business is war"? It's true, and the airlines are in a war of survival as oil prices rise ever higher. Airlines won't give us a break so give yourself one by being a smart airfare shopper.