Taxes and Fees on Air Travel: How Big a Bite?

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Editor's Note: This story was originally published on June 29, 2009. To see the most recent SmarterTravel articles on related topics, please click on any of the following links: airfare, airport, AskEd & AnswerEd, Ed Perkins, taxes and fees.


Travelers seem to be a favorite target for taxing authorities, and each time we fly we pay a laundry list of various fees and taxes. A reader recently vented some of the confusion and rage we all often feel:

"The sneaky fees I hate the worst are the airport landing fees that nobody tells you about before you land. For example, in the Dominican Republic the fee is $10 to be paid only in dollars. If you have already changed your money or have no cash on you it's another hassle. I understand that in Chile it is as high as $85."

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Another reader echoed this sentiment: "The $34 airport departure fee in Costa Rica is a ripoff to leave the country. Of course visitors don't vote so more and more tourist destinations are adding this tax/fee to the unwary traveler."

Fees we pay when we buy tickets are bad enough, but the worst ones are those that catch us unaware. Here's a rundown of current fees for US travelers.

U.S. Fees

Whenever you take a domestic flight, the U.S. government adds on a taxes; figures are of the first of the year:

  • Ticket excise tax of 7.5 percent on domestic flights and flights to/from Canadian and Mexican cities within 225 miles of a U.S. border; prorated for flights between 48 states and Alaska or Hawaii
  • Flight segment tax of $3.60 for travel within the 50 states; prorated for flights between 48 states and Alaska or Hawaii
  • Arrival and departure fees of $8.00 on flights between the 49 states and Alaska or Hawaii
  • September 11 security fee of $2.50 per enplanement, with a maximum of two for each one-way trip.

The U.S. Government imposes a different set of fees on international travel:

  • International departure and arrival taxes of $16.10.
  • Agricultural inspection fee of $6.00 on arrival.
  • Customs user fee of $5.50 on arrival
  • Immigration user fee of $7.00 on arrival

Hundreds of individual U.S. airports—348 at last count—collect "Passenger Facility" fees. Fee levels are set by each airport, subject to government approval. Currently, the maximum fee is $4.50 per segment, with a maximum of two segments on each one-way trip; I've seen some movement to increase the minimum to as much as $6 per segment.

These fees are dedicated to pay for government services related to air travel: airport and airways development and operation of security, customs, and immigration services. Several of them are indexed to the cost of living and will probably increase gradually in the next few years.

Government rules require that the 7.5 percent excise tax be included in the base fares that airlines advertise, but the others are add-on extras. However, all of these taxes and fees are included in the price of a ticket when you buy it: The U.S. government imposes no nasty surprises.

For further reference, the Air Transport Association (trade association of the big airlines) posts a summary of taxes and fees, along with links to relevant government agencies. Check it out for more detail

Foreign Fees

Many foreign governments impose similar fees on air travelers. As in the U.S., some are dedicated to funding infrastructure relative to air travel. Others, however, are assessed "just because we can," a few are "reciprocal" spite fees to punish U.S. travelers for fees imposed by the U.S. government on their citizens, and at least one other is aimed at discouraging air travel, generally.

The most onerous of such fees is the "passenger duty" imposed on air travelers departing from the U.K. Economy class travelers to the U.S. East Coast now pay £45 (about $74, see XE.com), rising to £60 in 2010; travelers to the West Coast now pay £50, rising to £75 in 2010. Travelers in premium classes (including premium economy) pay double those rates—even those on frequent flyer tickets. The main purpose of this duty is to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by discouraging flying. So far, only the U.K has enacted such a duty, but other European governments also blame airlines for heavy generation of greenhouse gas. Don't be surprised to see more such fees in coming years.

This duty is routinely collected by your airline when you buy your ticket. It's one of the main reasons for those very high "plus tax" add-ons to fares from the U.K.

Among the "reciprocal" fees, the highest, at $100, is in Chile, payable on entry. Airlines do not collect this fee.

As far as I can tell, more than 100 governments/airports around the world charge some sort of departure tax or fee. Some vary by airport, ongoing destination, length of stay in the country, and cost of ticket. It's almost impossible to determine which fees are included in the ticket price and which you have to pay in cash when you leave.

Go-Today has compiled a list of airport departure fees and taxes at a handful of countries. Presumably, these are all payable in cash, on the spot: Argentina $18; Belize $20; Bolivia $16 airport plus $25 traveler tax; Brazil $36; Cambodia $15; Chile $30 (plus the entry fee); China $6-$11; Cook Islands $17; Costa Rica $26; Ecuador $26-$41; Fiji $11; Guatemala $31; Japan $18; Panama $20; Peru $33; Singapore $9; Thailand $14; Uruguay $22; and Vietnam $12. Unfortunately, this tabulation is not dated, so I have no way to determine how recent the data are. Nor does it specify which fees are in local currency and which require U.S. dollars or other external currency. Moreover, I found it impossible to verify these figures—on several spot checks, neither national nor airport websites were clear.

The conclusion is obvious: Whenever you arrive in a foreign country, ask about departure fees and taxes soon enough to make sure you have enough of the proper currency. The last hassle you need is to find you have to locate an exchange office or ATM when you're about to clear security for a flight.

 
 
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