It's a Lie: A La Carte Airfares Don't Save You Money

Sarah's Travel Tips
by , SmarterTravel Staff
Sarah Pascarella Headshot
Woman shopping online with credit card (Photo: Index Open)
Editor's Note: This story was originally published on December 15, 2010. To see the most recent SmarterTravel articles on related topics, please click on any of the following links: airfare, baggage, Expedia, Sarah's Travel Tips, Sarah Pascarella, taxes and fees.

Want to receive stories like this every day? Subscribe to our free Deal Alert newsletter!

On the topic of airline fees, we know that travelers are divided: Some are pleased with the industry's recent a la carte model, where travelers only pay for the services they use. Others miss the one-size-fits-all model, where a ticket covered the cost of baggage, meals, snacks, customer service, and more.

But which system provides the better value? When fees came onto the landscape, many airlines justified their existence by claiming customers would save money by only having to pay for the services they valued (baggage, snacks, etc.). As you'll soon see, however, that simply isn't the case. Today's customers are paying more and getting less.

Find Cheap Flights!
Find Cheap Flights!
Get Prices
Find Cheap Vacation Packages!
Get Prices
Find Cheap Hotel Deals!
Get Prices
Find Cheap Car Rentals!
Get Prices
Find Cheap Cruises!
Get Prices

I examined five routes over four different time periods, comparing pre- and post-fee base airfares. In my test cases, I envisioned that a traveler booked his or her flight online and checked one bag for each leg of the trip. The results came in as follows.

Editor's Note: All airfare data provided by I added a round-trip $50 bag fee (e.g., $25 each-way) to each 2010 base price to come up with each total in the "difference including fees" category. All prices have been adjusted for inflation.

December 2006 versus December 2009

Route2006 Base Price (Adjusted for Inflation)2009 Base PriceBase Price Differential (Fees Not Included)Actual Difference Including Fees
Los Angeles to San Francisco$155$143 ($193 w/checked bag)$12 less expensive$38
Boston to Orlando$288$309 ($359 w/checked bag)$21 more expensive $71
Chicago to Washington, D.C.$176$248 ($298 w/checked bag)$72 more expensive$122
Milwaukee to New Orleans$328$285 ($335 w/checked bag)$43 less expensive $7
New York to Los Angeles$442$361 ($411 w/checked bag)$81 less expensiveA la carte price is $31 cheaper

July 2006 versus July 2010

Route2006 Base Price (Adjusted for Inflation)2010 Base PriceBase Price Differential (Fees Not Included)Actual Difference Including Fees
Los Angeles to San Francisco$192$193 ($243 w/checked bag)$1 more expensive$49
Boston to Orlando$302$285 ($335 w/checked bag)$17 less expensive $33
Chicago to Washington, D.C.$305$305 ($355 w/checked bag)Same base price$50
Milwaukee to New Orleans$342$245 ($295 w/checked bag)$97 less expensive $47
New York to Los Angeles$468$508 ($558 w/checked bag)$40 more expensive$90

In most of my test-case scenarios, the a la carte (2010) prices will cost you more money—and in several instances, it's a significant amount (around $50 or more). Essentially, because everything is priced individually, you are now paying more and receiving less service: Today, you're paying more out of pocket for what used to be included in a cheaper base price. It would be one thing if the base price were actually less expensive, but adjusted for inflation, we see the opposite.

What to Do

Airline fees are here to stay, there's no doubt about that: In fact, the airlines made $7.8 billion in fees in 2009 alone. As consumers, you can't argue with those types of numbers. But you can vote with your future spending habits.

If you're not already familiar with our handy Airline Fees: The Ultimate Guide, bookmark it to refer to whenever you're planning a trip. We're constantly updating it as the airlines adjust their fees. Consult the guide to determine which airlines offer the least nickel-and-diming for the services you plan to use.

At press time, the only major airlines with minimal fee policies are low-cost carriers Southwest and JetBlue. On Southwest, your first two checked bags fly at no extra charge; on JetBlue, your first checked bag is free. All other major carriers associate a cost with checking a bag or two.

If rail travel is an option, consider taking the train as an alternative to flying. The Boston Globe reports Amtrak, with its popular high-speed Acela service, is gunning hard for most of the travel market along the Northeast Corridor. In the Globe example, tickets cost roughly the same between Amtrak and air service, but train travel offers much fewer headaches, a downtown pickup and drop-off, and (most importantly) no fees. If enough travelers start gravitating to rail service over flights (on several key routes), the airlines may get the message.

Your Turn

Are you a frequent traveler? Do you feel like you're paying more for less nowadays? Tell us about your best strategies for saving on airfare and avoiding fees by leaving a comment below!

Editor's Note: SmarterTravel is a member of the TripAdvisor Media Network, an operating company of Expedia, Inc. Expedia, Inc. also owns

Read comments or add your own insight!