Cheapism: Making sense of airlines' "ancillary" fees

Joe Raedle / Today
A passenger checks in baggage at the United Airlines counter at the Miami International Airport in Florida.

Airline fees are ascending this summer and show no sign of leveling off.

First, United Airlines upped its change fee to $200 for domestic flights. It took just two weeks for US Airways, Delta Air Lines, and American Airlines to fall in line.

Then, last week United was at it again, hiking change and cancellation fees for award tickets by as much as $75. The unannounced increases didn’t escape the watchful eye of The Points Guy, a travel-rewards guru who suspects that other legacy carriers may again follow suit.

Meanwhile, Frontier Airlines is venturing into fees few other airlines have levied (so far). The budget carrier made headlines in May by introducing charges of up to $100 for a carry-on bag. Starting July 1, passengers will have to pay $2 for a coffee or soft drink from the beverage cart.

All these ancillary charges make it tough for consumers to gauge the true price of flying one airline vs. another. has aggregated airline fees for 12 U.S. carriers and provides detailed comparison charts. Here’s an overview of what to expect:

Baggage Fees.By now everyone is used to paying $25 for a checked bag, but even more than that for a carry-on? It’s a reality for travelers flying not only Frontier, but also Allegiant Air and Spirit Airlines. The two are notorious for using a la carte fees to keep fares low. They derived a greater percentage of their 2012 revenue from ancillary fees than any other airlines, according to a recent report by IdeaWorksCompany, an industry consultancy. Travelers can save by paying carry-on-bag fees ahead of time online. Frontier waives the fee for customers who book through its website and assesses the $100 charge only at the gate. Southwest Airlines, alone among U.S. carriers, allows all passengers a carry-on and up to two checked bags free of charge. JetBlue Airways also grants customers one free checked bag.

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Change/Cancellation Fees. Southwest is the only U.S. airline that charges no fee for changing or canceling a flight. The rest raked in more than $2.5 billion in cancellation and change fees in 2012, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, up 7.3 percent from 2011. Passengers traveling on a domestic flight in the lowest fare class can expect to pay anywhere from $50 to more than $200 on top of any difference in fare. A Department of Transportation rule does give consumers 24 hours after making a reservation to change their minds without paying a penalty.

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Ticketing Fees. Travelers can generally avoid booking fees by going through an airline’s website, but most carriers charge an extra $10 to $35 to book by phone or in person. Allegiant and Spirit customers face fees online, as well, and Spirit charges $10 just to print a boarding pass at the airport. Frontier and (no surprise here) Southwest stand out for their lack of ticketing fees.

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Seating Fees. Airlines have attached hefty fees to various “perks” associated with economy or coach seating. A window or aisle seat near the front of the plane now commands as much as $99. Want extra legroom and priority boarding? That’ll be up to $215. Even the simple act of choosing a seat on a Spirit flight comes at a cost -- up to $50 per seat.

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