Between baggage fees, seat assignment charges and even fees for simply booking your flight online, airline fees can add up fast. These fees can quickly turn that sweet deal you found on airfare pretty expensive.
Even as basic economy fares spread, with their a la carte fee structures spread, every airline handles fees differently. USA Today has a breakdown of the 10 worst offenders when it comes to airline fees, based on an annual study from IdeaWorks Company.
Spirit Takes the Cake
It should come as no surprise that Spirit Airlines gets the top spot for charging more fees than any other airline. Forty-seven percent of Spirit’s total revenue comes from fees for online booking, baggage, seat assignment and more. Yes, that’s right: Almost half of Spirit’s revenue comes from fees.
Here’s the full top 10, along with how much in additional fees each airline charges each passenger on average.
- Spirit Airlines: $51 per passenger
- WOW Air: $49 per passenger
- Allegiant Airlines: $49 per passenger
- Frontier: $48 per passenger
- Jet2.com: $43 per passenger
- Qantas Airways: $43 per passenger
- United Airlines: $39 per passenger
- AirAsia X: $33 per passenger
- HK Express: $33 per passenger
- Wizz Air: $31 per passenger
Spirit’s love for nickel-and-diming its passengers simply can’t be beat. And that’s clear from the airline’s “Passenger Usage Fee,” aka an online booking fee. Spirit charges as much as $20 each way for each ticket booked online, making up roughly a third of all its ancillary revenue. Want to avoid it? You can head to your airport and book your fare at the check-in counter. Who even does that anymore?
Allegiant also earns a spot tied for second in part due to the same fees. But the biggest culprit by far are fees for baggage. The study found fees for carry ons and checked luggage amount for 40 percent of airlines’ fee-related revenue.
Great Deal? Maybe Not with Airline Fees
Airlines like Spirit, Allegiant and even some of the big domestic carriers charge these fees for one reason: To make more money. Few travelers want to hop inside a metal tube without a bag of belongings, or seated next to a stranger. They rely on these add-ons to keep their profits up. And that often comes at the expense of that great fare you found.
To illustrate that point, the study compared a handful of fares from New York to London. With low-cost upstarts like Norwegian Air flying across the Atlantic, it’s easy to score a good deal. At least up front. Here’s how four major airlines ranked just for the fare itself:
- Norwegian: $239
- American: $334
- United: $334
- Virgin Atlantic: $412
Once you add in one checked bag, a meal and a seat assignment, it looks much different.
- United: $334 (no change)
- American: $358 (+$24)
- Norwegian: $385 (+$146)
- Virgin Atlantic: $492 (+$80)
Of course, it’s up to you what fees you tack on. And with United rolling out basic economy on flights to Europe and Latin America, that no-fee fare may not be a reality anymore.
Beat Airlines at Their Own Game
Too many flyers have thought they scored a great deal only to get socked with hefty fees at the gate. There’s an easy way to change that: Use the Google Flights Basic Economy filter. Google Flights has long been our favorite travel search engine. The ability to filter out airlines that don’t include carry-ons – the hallmark of basic economy and high-fee airlines – gives some serious power back to consumers when booking domestic flights (this feature isn’t yet available on international routes).
And when it comes to the major domestic airlines, there’s an easy way to beat their basic economy fares. You just need an airline’s co-branded credit card. While it won’t get you a seat assignment on most airlines, you will get priority boarding and a free checked bag.
If you’re flying Delta, it’s a great time to apply for the Gold Delta SkyMiles Credit Card from American Express. That card is out with an enhanced, 60,000 SkyMile bonus after spending $3,000 in four months, and its $95 annual fee is waived for the first year.
One other possibility: you could just fly Southwest. The airline famously doesn’t allow seat assignments, and every passenger gets up to two checked bags for free.
Airlines big and small rake in tons of extra cash by charging you for the simple things. Keep this list of the biggest offenders in terms of airline fees in mind when searching for your next flight. And remember: Friends don’t let friends fly Spirit.
Editorial Note: Any opinions, analyses, reviews, or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved, or otherwise endorsed by any card issuer.