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airfare gotchas

11 Airfare Gotchas to Avoid at All Costs

It’s no secret that airlines don’t care too much (or at all) about helping customers make informed  decisions. But have you ever felt like you’re up against their unspoken rules—or airfare gotchas?

11 Airfare Gotchas to Avoid

In the confusing world of travel booking, there are plenty of airfare mistakes you could make to benefit the carrier—ones that can spike your overall cost, or make traveling more difficult. You can blame some of these pitfalls on the fine print, but others are simply the stupid airfare gotchas we’ve all fallen into. Here are 11 to watch out for.

Hidden Ticket Fees

Think you got a great deal? Hidden fees—especially popular among budget airlines that love airfare gotchas—can inflate costs quickly. Bringing a bag, forgetting inflight food, choosing a seat, and even printing your boarding pass can cost you a lot on no-frills airlines like Spirit, Allegiant, and WOW. Make sure you know what’s included in the fare price, and hold off on paying fees until you determine there’s no other option.

For example, if the airline requires you to pay for selecting a seat closer to your travel companion on a long-haul flight (like TAP recently expected me to), wait until you arrive at the airport and simply ask at the customer service desk if you can change your seat. Unless the flight is completely full, you’ll typically be able to move your seat assignment without paying a penny.

Getting Tricked Into Basic Economy Airfare

When major airlines American, Delta, and United recently introduced Basic Economy fares, alleging to save you money by stripping basic amenities like overhead bin space or seat-choosing privileges, they expected budget-conscious travelers to jump for joy. But, lately, more are scratching their heads. Delta’s president said recently that travelers might avoid Basic Economy “when they see exactly what it is.” As SmarterTravel’s Tim Winship points out: Delta seems to be acknowledging that what is and isn’t included in the Basic Economy price is unclear to travelers.

Even worse, booking sites can sometimes group Basic Economy seats in with the regular economy fares, making it easy for you to mistakenly book a basic seat (often for not much less) even if you know the difference. Kayak now highlights differing types of economy fares in its air searches, but not all booking platforms have caught up. Make sure you’re able to differentiate between basic and regular economy fares on the search site you use. If not, booking directly on the airline’s site is a safer bet for clearer seat options.

Multi-Airline Trips

Booking airfare on multiple airlines for back-to-back legs might seem like a good idea if it’s the cheapest option, but you lose a lot of power should you miss a flight on a multi-airline itinerary. Normally, missing a connection due to the airline’s timing is no problem—the airline will rebook you, no questions asked. However, if you miss a flight with a separate carrier, the airline at fault for you missing the connecting flight has no responsibility (or power) to rebook you. You’ll likely have to pay a rebooking fee, and will lose what few consumer rights you have when the airline is at fault.

Skipping an Onward Flight

Impulsive travelers, beware. Pouncing on other modes of completing a leg of your journey (i.e. train, bus, or boat) is only a worthwhile adventure if you’re not skipping an onward flight. This is another one of those fine-print airfare gotcha: Airline terms and conditions establish that your airfare is only valid so long as you show up for your reservation. If you miss a leg of the trip and don’t contact the airline about rebooking, it can cancel the rest of your itinerary to give your seat to someone else. You could end up paying a rebooking fee, or need to book an entirely new reservation if the airline can’t accommodate you on short notice.

Buying with a Third Party

Before you book with an online travel agent, check the price on the airline’s website. As with most services, a third-party seller is wont to charge you more. Use a widely trusted search engine like Google Flights, Kayak, or TripAdvisor that will show you the airline’s price, or will take you directly to the airline for booking.

Nonstop vs. Direct

A sly trick that airlines seem to enjoy is the nonstop vs. direct guessing game to test your airfare gotchas knowledge. “Nonstop” and “direct” both sound like you won’t be experiencing a connection, but the latter actually means your plane will land to drop off and pick up passengers—which can take up a lot of your precious time. This may or may not make a difference in your travel planning, but making a rule of booking only nonstop flights will at least mean you don’t ever wake up mid-flight and frantically ask your seat partner why the plane is landing.

Choosing a Difficult Airport

Don’t put on blinders when choosing a destination airport. Yes, you probably know what city you’re flying into—but do you know how many airports the city has, and which one is the best option for your preferred airline or time schedule? Make sure that your flight search is narrowed only to the general city you’re visiting, not to a single airport.

For example, when booking a flight to Washington, D.C., flight search engines should list “WAS (all airports),” in addition to the three separate airports in the D.C. area: Dulles, Reagan National, and Baltimore-Washington International. It would be unwise to assume you should select the one with “Washington” in its name, especially since, in this case, Reagan National in Virginia is the closest option to the city.

Foregoing Points

A golden rule in travel and in life: If an airline owes you something, hold them to it. The simplest way to do this is to enroll in rewards programs with every new airline you fly, and use the points you rack up. You don’t need elite status or a travel credit card to get money off flights here and there—simply keep tabs of your miles and use them where you can. It would be the airline’s dream for you to forget about what is essentially free money lying around.

Buying Too Early (or Late)

Too many airlines—and even some travel experts—champion the cause of “buying early” to get the best deal. But, “early” means different things to different people, while the window of optimal time for buying cheap airfare is surprisingly narrow. On average, seven to eight weeks is the optimal amount of advance time to buy your airfare. So, if your idea of “early” is six months, you’re probably going to end up paying a premium.

Airfare starts at sky-high rates and comes down as the date approaches—until demand picks up, usually a little less than two months before the flight. Buying well before (or after) that window will usually cost you.

Not Clearing Cookies

Clearing your cookies, or search history, is a good habit to have as you browse bookings, research suggests. This fact is considered by some to be a myth, or at least an unsupported claim—but it turns out there is some truth to it when it comes to hotels, so it could potentially be among the pesky airfare gotchas out there as well.

Northeastern University researchers have found that some popular hotel booking sites present slightly cheaper results to users without any hotel search history stored—though only by an average of about $12 to $15 dollars. Still, why not simply clear your history every now and then if it might save you a few bucks?

Not Knowing Your Rights

Have you read up on airlines’ terms and conditions, or studied public passenger rights laws and agreements? Probably not, but knowing what you’re entitled to is often the only way the airline will give it to you.

Luckily, we did the research for you and created a guide to lost baggage refunds, reimbursement for getting bumped, airline contracts, government-enforced passenger rights, and more. Download and print our Passenger Rights Guide fold-up card to keep your rights in your pocket and avoid airfare gotchas.

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Associate Editor Shannon McMahon writes about all things travel. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Editor’s Note: is part of TripAdvisor Media Group.

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