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New fees starting to add up on low-fare airlines

SmarterTravel

Not long ago, most low-fare carriers were heralded for cheap flights, easy-to-understand fare structures, and unbeatable service. But these days, many of the carriers have come to resemble their legacy counterparts by adding new fees and increasing existing ones. While the fees generally aren’t budget-busters, it’s important to know which airlines are now charging for checked baggage, or beverages, or other services that used to be free.

AirTran

Like Northwest, AirTran now charges for premium seat assignments. Travelers can opt to reserve a regular coach seat for $5 or an exit-row seat with more legroom for $15, instead of waiting to be assigned a seat at check-in. Worse yet, AirTran tried to keep the policy change quiet: Though it emailed its most frequent flyers, it didn’t formally announce the new fees in a press release.

AirTran has also upped its flight-change fee from $60 to $75 for all changes made after September 30. This charge is comparable to fees from legacy carriers. Other low-cost airlines still charge much less, if anything at all, for itinerary changes.

Spirit

Spirit has transitioned from a traditional low-fare carrier to an “ultra” low-cost carrier, and with that transition comes new fees. Most notably, Spirit now charges for checked baggage. The first two bags cost $5 each if checked online before the flight, or $10 at the airport; a third bag costs $100 online or at the airport. Southwest, the original low-cost carrier, still allows passengers to check up to three bags for free.

Spirit also charges for onboard beverages (besides water). Though soft drinks, coffee, and tea only cost $1, those beverages are free on most other airlines’ flights.

For $9, Spirit gives members access to “exclusive, private sales” in its $9 Fare Club. Sales are scheduled at least once every six weeks, and are available for booking only for members. The $9 rate is valid for the first three months, and then club membership costs $29.95 annually. If you fly Spirit frequently, this club could be a deal, but paying for the privilege of purchasing airfare is a program unique to this ultra-low-cost carrier.

Southwest

Low-fare king Southwest upped its charge for beer and wine from $3 to $4 earlier this year. Though this is small potatoes compared to new or increased fees other airlines charge, it’s still a notable increase.

JetBlue

Another entry in the “small potatoes” category is JetBlue‘s $5 charge for blankets and pillows. Though the airline still offers free blankets and pillows for general use, passengers can choose to purchase (and keep) fleece blankets and inflatable pillows. JetBlue also charges $1 for upgraded headsets, though the free ones are still available.

Virgin America

On the recently launched Virgin America, passengers can purchase “premium seats” (otherwise known as bulkhead and exit-row seats) for $15 on short-haul flights and $25 on long-haul flights.

Passengers can check one bag for free, but a second bag costs $10, and each bag after that (up to a total of 10) costs $50.

Skybus

Another new carrier, Skybus, also charges for checked bags. The first two cost $5 per bag for each flight segment; each additional bag costs $50 per segment. Though Skybus has an open-seating plan, passengers can purchase “priority boarding” for $10 per segment.

Beverages, including water, are available for a charge on Skybus, as are pillows and blankets. Passengers, with the exception of those with special dietary needs, are not allowed to consume their own food or beverages onboard.

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