Once upon a time it seemed that, no matter which airline you flew or how you made your reservation, you could expect about the same level of amenities and service (save the bonuses that come with business class, first class, etc.). However this is quickly changing as the airline industry continues to experiment with new service models and pricing structures. This is partially due to the prevalence of third-party travel booking sites where customers may only be looking at the fare itself and not other fees — leading some passenger to remain unaware of the fees they may be in for.
Before you book your next flight, here are a few things to watch out for:
Baggage fees (including carry on!)
While checked luggage fees were once unthinkable, today they are commonplace on most major carriers with the notable exception of Southwest (where your first two checked bags are free). Compounding this relatively new pain point a slew of carriers including Delta, American, JetBlue, and others recently increased these fees as well, bumping the price of your first checked bag up to $30. Of course the prices go up for subsequent bags and there are weight limits in place for these items as well.
So think you’ll save money by just carrying on instead? You may be in for a surprise there as well. On budget airlines like Allegiant, Spirit, and the like, you may be subjected to carry-on bag fees, although you might still be able to bring a “personal item” (that can fit under the seat in front of you) for free. As I can tell you from experience, Allegiant also charges different prices for bags depending on whether you pay for them in advance or at the airport. Hint: it’s definitely worth it to pay in advance.
Back in the day, most domestic flights had two classes: first and coach. Meanwhile international flights might add a business class as well for a total of three ticket types. Now, between premium economy classes like Delta’s Comfort+ and “basic economy” fares, it may be unclear just what you’re getting with your ticket.
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For example, on American, a basic economy ticket will not only ensure you board the plane near the very end of the process but will also only be assigned a seat when you check-in. However, you may be able to select a seat of your own ahead of time for an additional fee. Speaking of which…
Seat selection and preferred seat fees
Beyond the basic economy fares and budget airlines like Allegiant that will charge you to select an assigned seat ahead of time, there are also airlines that will charge you extra to book “preferred” seats. This is something you might notice on Delta flights where there’s a first class, Delta Comfort+, and then preferred seats near the front of the plane (along with the exit rows) that all come at a premium price. Preferred seat pricing can depend on a few factors including the distance of the flight but will typically cost you upwards of $19. I should note that, if you do manage to work your way up to Silver Medallion status, you’ll then be able to nab these coveted main cabin seats without the extra cost and will also get a bit of a discount on Comfort+ in the event you don’t make the upgrade list.
Early bird check-in
Alas, while Southwest gets a lot of “luv” for its free checked bags, lack of first class, and other touches, the airline does still have some interesting fees of their own such as their early bird check-in. If you weren’t aware, Southwest does not assign seats at all. Instead, passengers are assigned a boarding position based on the time they check-in and some other factors. If you don’t want to spend your day refreshing their site exactly 24 hours before your departure, you can pay to be check-in automatically and be ensured a better boarding position. Like most things, the price of this service has risen in recent years and has now taken on a different structure, with the service currently fetching between $15 to $25 per passenger. In any case, you’ll still have to find your spot in line before boarding, which can certainly be a turn off to some travelers.
With many airlines introducing new classes of service and varying fees for everything from seat selection to carry on luggage, it’s important to know what you’re getting into before booking. While some budget airlines like Southwest and Allegiant only allow booking on their own sites (and not third-party services like Expedia), this is not the case for all airlines with some fee quirks. Because of this, regardless of whether you’re using these third-party sites to book, it’s always a good idea to visit the airline’s site and read up on what fees you’ll encounter on the way to your final destination.