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Airline Fees Survival Guide, Part Two

The real cost of flying is harder than ever to determine thanks to new fees for checked bags, food and beverages, and other services that used to free. In part one of this Airline Fees Survival Guide, Jessica Labrencis showed you which fees to compare before you book your flight. This week, I’ll be demonstrating how to avoid being caught by fees at the airport and in the sky.

Scenario one: Unsuspecting travelers fly fee-loving US Airways

You and your brother have been saving up your money and vacation days all summer so you can go on an October hiking trip in the Grand Canyon. It’s been a while since you’ve flown anywhere but the US Airways fare from your hometown of San Diego to Phoenix ($142 round-trip) seems cheap enough and the itinerary is direct so you don’t worry.

You each bring a large backpack and a duffel bag of clothes to check. At the counter, you learn you’ll both have to pay $15 for your first bag and $25 for your second bag, or $80 total. What the?! You didn’t have that problem last time you flew a couple of years ago. And now another customer tells you it’s even worse than you thought: US Airways no longer serves meals or snacks and they even charge for water ($2 each) on the plane.

You realize you haven’t done your homework thoroughly, but not being one to give up easily, you pull your brother aside and decide it’s time to improvise. You’ll have to check at least two bags, but there’s no need to pay for four. You each change out of your flip-flops, T-shirts, and shorts, and pull out from your duffel your bulky hiking boots, cargo pants, long sleeve shirts, and jackets. It’s hot in San Diego, but the airport is air-conditioned, so you’ll be fine. After changing from your lighter clothes to hiking gear, you’re able to stuff your duffels into your backpacks and cram some extra items into your carry-on. Now you only have to check your backpacks. Before you hand them over, you get a stroke of genius, pull out your empty canteens, and then fill them up with water at the drinking fountain once you’ve passed through security. Your quick thinking will save you $54.

Moral of the story: With new airline fees rolling out each week, it’s important to check on the latest fees before you book and before you fly. maintains an up-to-date fees chart you can use to get answers quickly.

To help reduce your baggage, you’ll need to learn to be a defensive packer: Only bring what you really need, learn to maximize space in your luggage, and be creative, bringing items and outfits that can be used for multiple purposes. You can find more ideas from your fellow travelers.

As for onboard food and beverages, it’s safe to assume you won’t get much (or anything) without paying for it. Bringing empty water bottles through security and filling them later is a good idea even if water is free onboard, as you’ll have plenty to last you through the flight.

Scenario two: The perfect storm—flying with kids, over the holidays, on American and Northwest

This year for Christmas, Grandma was able to snag a timeshare in Hawaii, so the whole gang is coming down from Chicago to spend the holidays together. You’re traveling with your spouse and your two young children, so you know it’s going to be a long, challenging flight. Worse yet, the cheapest round-trip airfares you can find are more than $1,000 each and require you to fly on American to Seattle and then connect to Hawaii on Northwest, two airlines that charge for both the first- and second-checked bags. You can’t afford to travel with your usual caravan of bags, so you decide: No presents this year, everyone is getting gas cards, you and your wife will each take one big checked bag, and little Suzy and Serena will share one big bag instead getting their own child-size luggage.

At the airport you check your three bags for $45 as expected, make your way through security, and then get onboard. To keep your carry-on luggage to a minimum (you’ve heard American staffers will force you to check and pay for oversized carry-ons), you avoid bringing much in the way of food or entertainment for the kids, figuring they can survive on the free soda, a box of crackers you brought along, and the in-flight movie. The kids do fine with the snacks and soda on the first leg, but you’re miffed when American charges you $2 per headset to watch the movie. You really ought to have brought your own from home.

When you change planes in Seattle to a Northwest aircraft, you breathe a sigh in relief. It’s a Pacific flight so movies and meals must be free for this leg, right? Wrong. Luckily you have your new headsets from American so you don’t have to buy new ones from Northwest, but you still have to pay $10 each for sandwiches onboard when the crackers run out. In total, you’re out an extra $93 today.

You learn your lesson on the way back home. You pack some sandwiches and healthy snacks before leaving the timeshare, and you’ve made everyone keep their headsets. The only problem: Grandma didn’t get the memo about no presents and now you have two extra bags of gifts. With five checked bags you’ll have to pay $85 in fees. After you figure out how expensive it would be to ship your presents home (more than $200), you briefly contemplate giving them away, but not before doing some research online. Happily, you discover Northwest’s first-checked-bag charge only applies to passengers who booked their tickets on or after July 10, and you booked earlier. At the airport, the check-in attendant starts to charge you for five checked bags, but after reminding him about the July 10 rule, you only have to pay one second-checked bag fee for a total of $25.

Moral of the story: Baggage fees hurt, but don’t forget about smaller items like snacks and movies, especially when you’re traveling with kids. Unless you’re flying in business or first class, it’s generally a safe bet to provide your own entertainment and food.

It’s also helpful to know who’s exempt from certain fees, such as those who booked their tickets before a fee was announced. That way you can relax a bit, and know what you’re entitled to in case the airline representatives (who may be overworked and/or overwhelmed by heavy holiday traffic) forget.

Scenario three: Flying Southwest, the fee-free airline?

You are such a savvy traveler. You booked your September trip to visit friends in San Francisco early and were able to get a round-trip sale fare on Southwest (flying out of Baltimore) for under $300. You know that Southwest is the only major carrier that doesn’t charge for either your first or second bag, so you check a large suitcase of your belongings and a 20-pound box of Maryland crab cakes to give to your friends.

While you’re in California you buy a fancy wine refrigerator you found in Napa. The wine store offers to ship it home for you at a discounted rate of $75, but you know you can take it on Southwest as your second-checked bag, so you decline. When it comes time to fly home you’re ready for another fee-free flight until you get to the check-in counter. Yes, first and second bags are free, but your wine refrigerator weighs 82 pounds, which is 32 pounds over the checked-bag limit. You have to pay a $50 overweight baggage fee, and so reluctantly hand over your credit card. You’re angry at first, but when you go online and check out the overweight baggage fees other airlines charge, you realize you made out. The other U.S. carriers would have charged you anywhere from $69 (AirTran) to $150 (Delta) for your hefty package, and some (Continental, Northwest) would have refused to accept it altogether.

Moral of the story: Southwest is definitely the most lenient airline in terms of fees and baggage allowances, so it’s a good choice if you can get a cheap fare and need to check a lot of bags. However, it’s still important to be aware of baggage weight limits on any other airline you fly, because the charges can be high. Also, you could be stuck scrambling to find postal service at the airport if your bags are too heavy for the airline to accept. In that case, you’ll likely have to pay freight charges that are much higher than the airline’s fees. If you’re in doubt about your bag making the limits, weigh it before you depart so you don’t face an unpleasant surprise at the airport.

Did you miss part one of our Airline Fees Survival Guide? Read it now for help comparing total prices before you book.

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