Flying is a lot like gambling: The house always wins.
Airlines, like casinos, have become experts at the game, using every means at their disposal to their advantage. No, it’s not like we flyers are being outright cheated—generally speaking, airlines do what we pay them to do, which is get us to our destinations.
But while the game may not be rigged, it might tilt slightly toward one party’s advantage, and according to some airline experts, it’s not the passengers’.
Now those experts are sharing with us the top 10 sneaky ways the airlines try to put one over on you. Flyer beware!
1. Not publicizing refunds
“If your flight is canceled or severely delayed, [the airlines] don’t make it clear that you can choose to get a refund on a nonrefundable ticket,” says George Hobica of Airfarewatchdog.com. “Instead they just tell you to wait for the next flight. But if you’re going to miss the funeral and there’s no point in going now, just ask for your money back.”
2. The steadily increasing change fee
There was a time when there were no such things as “change fees.” If you had to change your travel dates and times, all you had to pay was the difference in fares.
We know that hasn’t been the case for a while, but you may not have noticed the price of change has gotten even steeper. Since 2013, the big four U.S. carriers (starting with United) have silently raised their change fees for domestic itineraries to $200.
“It’s gotten to the point where it’s sometimes cheaper to abandon the ticket and buy a new one than change an existing ticket,” says Joe Brancatelli of the business travel site JoeSentMe.com. “Let’s say you bought a $400 ticket, and now you want to change it. The airline will tell you, “That $400 ticket is now $550 [because of the fare increase]. And then there’s the $200 change fee. So that’s $350 to change a $400 fare.”
Fortunately, some airlines have smaller change fees; JetBlue charges $75 per person 60 days or more prior to the departure date, with the price increasing as you get closer to the departure date. And Southwest Airlines’ change fee is $0.
3. No more free tickets for frequent flyers
“Airlines will tell you that you can have an award ticket for 25,000 [frequent flyer miles],” says Joe Brancatelli. “Lots of luck getting it.” While you can redeem award points for discounts on the fare, you cannot redeem them for fees and taxes. The result: You can end up getting an award ticket that still costs you money—especially if it’s an international flight.
“I once saw a Korean Air fare from Los Angeles to Seoul that was being shown for $700,” remembers Brancatelli. But the fare breakdown told a different story. “Korean Air claimed the price of the seat was $99; the rest of it was taxes and surcharges. So if you’re claiming a 60,000-70,000 mile award to get that free seat to Seoul, that would only end up covering the $99 fare, while you’re on the hook for the rest. Your ‘free seat’ cost you 90 percent of what you otherwise would have paid for it.”
4. Fuel surcharges
Speaking of fees, airlines began adding fuel surcharges to ticket prices a few years ago amid sky-high fuel prices. You’d think those charges would disappear once the fuel prices dropped, right? Nope. The major airlines have kept the charges in place even as fuel prices dropped like a rock over the past several months (they’ve started to creep back up, but they’re still but a fraction of what they were as recently as last summer). “How are they still charging fuel surcharges?” wonders Brancatelli.
5. Fee shenanigans
“Here’s one that annoys me: Airlines that don’t refund fees,” says Brian Kelly, aka the Points Guy. “When you prepay for a better seat and then the flight gets canceled or the airplane switches, most airlines don’t auto-refund, and sometimes you need to chase them down for it.”
6.They’re selling tickets instead of seats
Getting an assigned economy seat when you book used to be standard. It’s now on its way to becoming another pricey perk. “Increasingly, people are finding out that they don’t get an assigned seat unless they pay for it,” says Brancatelli. According to the Wall Street Journal, airlines typically block off up to 40 percent of all economy seats for premium members or those willing to upgrade. The rest have to take their chances at check-in, which could lead to some cruel surprises.
“You get to the airport, and you’re told your 9-year-old will be sitting between two men you don’t know,” Brancatelli says.
7. Reducing your legroom
Even when you do get a coveted window seat by chance, it’s still no picnic. We’ve all noticed that airlines are shrinking legroom in economy class. “When the airlines deregulated 35 years ago, standard legroom was 34 inches,” says Brancatelli. “Now standard legroom in coach has shrunk to 31 inches.” And sometimes it’s as low as 28 inches.” The reason, of course, is simple: The more people airlines can pack onto an airplane, the more money they make.
And there’s another hidden advantage to airlines’ people packing—passengers who’ll ante up more for more legroom.
8. Charging for overhead bin space?
With the proliferation of baggage fees, people are carrying on like there’s no tomorrow—their baggage, that is. “A lot of people will say, ‘Screw it. I’ve learned how to pack light, and I can pack my one carry-on and one personal item,'” says Brancatelli. “But when airlines are selling 80 to 85 percent of the seats they’re flying, lots of luck finding space.”
Overhead bin space has become premium real estate, and airlines know that. “So now you have to pay for premier boarding if you want to find [overhead bin] space above you,” says Brancatelli. Or risk getting on the plane late, not finding any bin space, and being forced to check your bag—which you’d hoped to avoid in the first place.
9. Padding your arrival times
“All schedules are padded because they want to show you an on-time arrival,” says Brancatelli. “The red-eye from L.A. to N.Y. used to leave at 10 p.m., and we used to get in at 5 a.m. Now they leave at 9:30 p.m. and they’re scheduled to arrive at 6 a.m. How does that work?” (Hint: The country has not gotten bigger.) This can be annoying for passengers who book airport pickups for flights that end up arriving 40 minutes early.
10. Not helping in every way they can
“Many airlines will, if you ask nicely and the agent is in a good mood, put you on a competitors’ flight if there’s a flight delay or cancellation,” says AirfareWatchdog’s Hobica. This used to be a requirement for delays not caused by “acts of God,” but no longer. Still, says Hobica, airlines “often do it anyway if you ask and there are seats available on a competing airline that will get you there sooner.”
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