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How to beat travel fees big and small

Major U.S. airlines made $2.6 billion in baggage fees in the first three quarters of 2012

Consumer Reports magazine: May 2013

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Airlines are charging for baggage, seat selection, Wi-Fi, and even pillows.

When reader Liviu Giuroiu of Warren, Mich., booked a flight on a major U.S. airline for his wife from California to Romania, he says he tried to prepay for her second checked bag to get the discounted fee of $60 each way. But when she arrived at the airport, the carrier for the first leg of the trip charged her $75 for the flight. Giuroiu says the airline did not respond to his many e-mail messages requesting a refund, though it reduced the fee after he complained to the Better Business Bureau.

Travelers have been complaining about airline fees for booking, itinerary changes, and checked baggage for years. But now airlines seem to have a fee for almost everything—Wi-Fi, extra leg room, and more. “Anything that some might consider a perk, there’s now a fee for that,” says Rick Seaney, co-founder of FareCompare.com, a travel-planning website.

Even low-fee carrier Southwest Airlines added a $40 fee in January for passengers who want to be among the first 15 people to board their plane. It has also raised its “EarlyBird” check-in for slightly less exclusive priority boarding from $10 to $12.50.

Some airlines offer a bundle of services for a single fee. For example, American Airlines’ “Choice Essential” option allows no-fee changes, one checked bag, and priority boarding for $68 round-trip. For $88, you also get 50 percent more bonus miles and an alcoholic beverage. Southwest and Delta also offer bundles.

Extra fees from airlines and hotels often aren’t disclosed when you book a trip. But more transparency may be on the way. In November, the Federal Trade Commission sent a warning letter to 22 hotel operators telling them to disclose “resort fees” in their total price. And this month the Department of Transportation expects to release a proposed rule that would require airlines to provide fee information to travel agents so that consumers can compare fees among carriers and pay for optional services when they book flights.

Until then, here’s what to do to avoid certain fees.

Airline extras

The fees most likely to aggravate you are those for changing your ticket and for checking your bags. Change fees typically run $75 to $150 for domestic flights and $200 for international trips. Your first checked bag typically costs $20 to $25 on domestic flights and is free if you fly internationally. But if your checked bags weigh too much, you’ll get slapped with overweight fees of $25 to $200. You might also pay fees of $10 to $35 to book by phone, up to $99 for advance seat selection, and $10 to $199 for extra leg room. If those aren’t bad enough, Spirit Airlines charges up to $50 for a carry-on, and Virgin America has a $10 fee for pillows and blankets.

What you can do. Travel light. Or fly a low-fee airline, such as JetBlue or Southwest. JetBlue allows you one free checked bag; Southwest gives you two. If you need to check a bag or pay for a carry-on, see whether there’s a discount for prepaying on the airline’s website. On Spirit flights, carry-on baggage is $50 if you pay for it at the airport, $35 if purchased when booking online.

Check your airline’s luggage fees and weight limits. For example, United charges $100 to $200 (depending on your destination) for a checked bag weighing from 51 to 70 pounds; Hawaiian Airlines charges $50 for travel outside Hawaii. Complicating things, overweight fees kick in at just 41 pounds on Spirit and Allegiant Air.

You might avoid some fees if you charge your travel to an airline credit card. The cards often carry annual fees of $40 to $100, but many waive them in the first year. The perks they typically offer—priority boarding, free checked luggage, car-rental insurance, travel insurance, and access to airport lounges—can more than make up for the annual fee.

Hotel add-ons

Once you arrive at your destination, you might get hit with “resort fees” tacked onto your hotel bill at checkout to the tune of $12 to $40 per day. Those fees can cover services such as access to a pool, gym, or business center; daily newspapers; or making “free” local calls—whether you use the services or not.

What you can do. Try negotiating with the hotel clerk to remove or reduce the extra fees. Or stay at a hotel that doesn’t charge them in the first place. Mid-tier chains such as Courtyard by Marriott, Hilton Garden Inn, and Hyatt House typically offer free Wi-Fi, parking, gyms, pools, and business centers.

Joining a hotel loyalty program or getting a hotel credit card can score you free amenities. For instance, Omni Hotel group’s complimentary loyalty program gets you free Wi-Fi, morning beverage service, newspapers, clothes pressing, and bottled water on your arrival.

   

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