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Airline Fees Survival Guide, Part One

With airlines adding new fees seemingly every day, booking a flight is no longer a straightforward process. Simply popping an itinerary into a flexible-search engine and booking the cheapest fare will no longer work, because not every airline charges the same fees for the same services. You’ve got to work harder to find the best fare. Here are a few examples to show you the way.

Scenario one: A single traveler with a carry-on

For a single traveler bringing along just a carry-on, comparing fares and booking a flight isn’t too difficult. (Currently, baggage fees apply only to checked luggage and, in one case, oversized carry-ons.)

Say you need to get from Los Angeles to New York and back. In my initial flexible-dates search, AirTran, American, Delta, and Virgin America all had the same base prices, but American and Virgin America were the best options because they offer nonstop flights to JFK.

AirTran’s base price was the same as American’s and Virgin America’s for a one-stop itinerary, but its taxes and fees were higher, likely due to the additional PFCs (passenger facility charges) from a Milwaukee layover. Add on $12 for round-trip seat assignments, and AirTran’s total fare ended up costing $46 more. Delta’s cheapest itinerary featured a nonstop outbound flight, but the return itinerary included a stopover in Cleveland, bumping up the taxes and fees by about $14.

Moral of the story: Book a nonstop flight when flying on a popular route. Contrary to popular belief, connecting flights can end up costing more because taxes include PFCs for each airport in an itinerary.

All other things being equal, avoid airlines charging for seat assignments. While $6 each way may not be much for a single traveler, it can substantially bump up the total fare for several people traveling together.

Scenario two: A family checking two bags

It can be tricky to identify the cheapest fares for a family. In this scenario, a family (two adults, one child, and one lap infant) is flying round-trip between Chicago and Orlando checking two bags.

Initially, Spirit‘s $82 one-way fares looked like the best deal for the family, beating $99 one-way fares from American and JetBlue. When I totaled all of Spirit’s fees, however, it actually offered the worst deal. For three people, Spirit’s total price was the best, but add on a $60 fee for checked baggage ($15 per person per one-way flight), plus $60 for advance seat assignments ($15 per flight for a window seat, $10 for an aisle, and $5 for a middle seat), and Spirit’s total price ended up $30 more than American’s.

American and JetBlue offered the same base prices (without taxes and fees), but the total fares were different. Taxes included, American’s nonstop flights were cheaper than JetBlue’s one-stop flights. Even factoring in $60 for two round-trip checked bags on American, its total price was the best. JetBlue’s was only $3 more expensive, however, and since JetBlue offers DirecTV and snacks for free, the extra $3 may be worth it for this family.

Moral of the story: Seat-assignment and baggage fees can bump one airline out of the running, so it’s worth taking a few minutes to total up the actual cost of flying before you book.

As much as you may hate paying a fee for checking your first bag, the airline charging the fee may still offer the best overall price, as American did in this scenario. But, free onboard amenities like food and entertainment may be worth paying a few extra dollars.

Scenario three: Two travelers checking two bags

In this situation, a couple is looking for a round-trip flight to San Juan, Puerto Rico, from Washington, D.C., and they’ll each check one bag.

AirTran and Spirit offered the least-expensive flights in a flexible-dates search, with fares from American and US Airways about $10 more expensive. But, when I searched on each airline’s website, Spirit’s base fare beat AirTran’s by $10. American, Spirit, and US Airways charge fees for the first checked bag, while both AirTran and Spirit tack on extra fees for seat assignments, so the couple would have a hard time figuring out which airline was cheapest overall without doing the math.

Despite $24 in seat-assignment fees, AirTran still came out on top by more than $50. Spirit’s double-whammy fees hiked its overall fare by $100, but even so, its fares were the second-best. American and US Airways offered the same base price (without taxes) and both charge $60 in baggage fees, but American’s taxes and fees were less than those of US Airways, making American’s fare third-best, and US Airways’ fourth—and last.

Moral of the story: When the airlines you’re considering all charge fees for various services, you must compare the total fares, including taxes and all fees to determine which offers the best deal. Had this couple booked with Spirit based on its cheaper base fare, they would have paid an extra $50.

Click here to read part two of the airline fees survival guide, which will help you avoid being hit by fees unawares at the airport and aboard the plane.

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