Add Frontier to the very short list of U.S. airlines that are trying not to gouge you to the maximum with fees. It dropped the fee to exchange a nonrefundable fare from $100 to $50 per ticket, dropped the fee for same-day itinerary changes on refundable tickets from $50 to $25 with no fare adjustment, and slightly dropped its checked baggage fees. All in all, by far the best airline for reasonable fees is Southwest, but JetBlue and Frontier come close. Sadly, the other big U.S. airlines still assess outrageous fees.
The most outrageous of all is the exchange fee. Typically, the cheapest airline tickets you can buy are nonrefundable. So when you buy a nonrefundable ticket but later have to cancel a flight, you won’t get your money back from any line. After all, that’s what “nonrefundable” means. But with most U.S. and Canadian lines, you can retain the cash value of the ticket — less, in most cases, an exchange fee. Those fees vary greatly among the airlines:
- Southwest is alone in imposing no fee — when you cancel a nonrefundable ticket, you retain the full dollar value as a credit toward a future Southwest flight. It doesn’t get any better than that, and Southwest’s “no change fee” ad campaign, along with its “no baggage fees” policy, seem to be gaining market share for Southwest. Consumer-friendly sometimes actually pays off in the marketplace.
- AirTran, Alaska, and Virgin America charge $75 (more if you don’t exchange online).
- JetBlue and Spirit charge $100; Allegiant charges $50 per segment, which means $100 for a typical round-trip.
- Air Canada, American, Continental, United, and US Airways charge a top $150 for regular domestic tickets and go to $250 on some international tickets.
Exchange fees are the most onerous and unfair of all airline fees. They are certainly not based on cost; I suspect an online exchange would cost pennies—maybe a few dollars, tops. Instead, the fees are set at penalty levels, designed either to fleece you when you have to change plans or force you into buying higher-priced tickets.
When first introduced, exchange fees were reasonable: usually $25 to $50. They were designed to fix a flaw in the ticket system. The earliest really cheap tickets were totally nonrefundable: “Don’t fly, we keep your money.” But most of them had an out for emergency reasons when supported by a certificate from a doctor, funeral home, or whatever. Unfortunately, the newly emerging technology of “desktop forging” resulted in a flood of phony certificates, each requiring an investigation. Instead, the airlines took the sensible approach of allowing you to keep the value of the ticket less a reasonable fee. But on most lines those fees are no longer reasonable.
Probably the next most onerous fees are for checked baggage. Here, two lines reign supreme: Southwest with two bags at no charge, JetBlue with one. And according to SmarterTravel’s “Ultimate Guide to Airline Fees,” Air Canada does not charge for one bag on trans-border flights.
An extra fee for more legroom is not “onerous” in the same way others are, but the best deals are on the three lines that actually have separate extra-legroom cabins: Frontier ($15 to $15 per flight), JetBlue (up to $60 per flight), and United (depends on flight).
Other fees are generally either (1) trivial or (2) apply only infrequently. Paying extra for a small snack or a pillow may seem like a nuisance, but at least those extras don’t cost much.
Presumably, when you buy a cheap ticket, you fully intend to use it. But stuff happens—you sometimes find it either convenient or necessary to cancel. Clearly, you want to avoid the worst fees if you possibly can. Fortunately, you can avoid the two worst fees—exchange and baggage—by flying Southwest, where you can usually find good fares as well. To avoid a baggage fee, fly JetBlue, which also puts you in the best coach cabin available. The other small lines also do reasonably well. But to minimize your fee exposure, avoid the giants.