Budget airlines like Spirit, Frontier, and Allegiant are notorious for their low fares in exchange for high fees on baggage, seat selection, and … well, almost everything. But if you're flying one of these low-cost carriers, you might be paying a fee of $40 or more per ticket without even knowing it.
Spirit tacks on a “Passenger Usage Charge” of up to $23 per segment. Allegiant levies a $22 “Carrier Usage Charge.” Minnesota's Sun Country joined the ranks by charging a $22 (or more) “Passenger Interface Charge.” But they're all the same thing: A fee for booking flights online.
Yes, really: In the 21st century, budget airlines are charging passengers more for the convenience of booking their flights online – whether you book directly with the airline or through a third-party site like Expedia – or by phone. These additional booking fees are shockingly common though still little-known, even among frequent flyers.
Budget airlines are counting on it escaping travelers' attention. And they're hoping you don't realize there's a fairly easy way to save that $40 or more in fees: By booking your flights at the airport instead.
Why This Works
No major U.S. carriers like American, Delta, United, or even Southwest levy a similar charge for doing so. But in the world of budget airlines – which make their real money charging passengers for extras like seat assignment, bags, and even water onboard – this fee is widespread.
From the large budget carriers like Spirit and Frontier to newcomers like Breeze and Avelo, every low-cost carrier calls it something different. But they're all essentially identical: A fee for booking online or by phone. And given many of these airlines sell flights for $40 each way or less, that fee can eat up a majority of what passengers are actually paying for their flights.
Take, for example, this one-way Spirit ticket from Minneapolis-St. Paul (MSP) to Las Vegas (LAS) for under $39. The fare itself is less than $1, while various government taxes add a few bucks more. But the airline's “Passenger Usage Charge” of nearly $23 each way comprises nearly 60% of the ticket cost!
Why don't these carriers just raise their actual fares? Airlines are on the hook to pay a 7.5% federal excise tax on their fares … but not for these separate fees.
The same is true for extras like seats, bags, and more. Charging these fees separately rather than simply building them into the actual airfare means low-cost carriers can drastically reduce how much of their revenue they need to fork over to the federal government. That's a big part of the reason why all these add-ons are such a core part of budget airlines' business models.
But there's a hitch. To consider it a fee instead of airfare, airlines have to make it optional – it's up to you whether you bring a bag, right? There's just one way to avoid these online booking fees: The airport workaround.
Buying your tickets with low-cost carriers in person at the airport means you can bypass these fees altogether. Is it worth a trip to the airport to save $40 or more on a ticket? That depends on how many tickets you're buying … and what it takes for you to get to the airport.
But first, let's look at the U.S. airlines that tack on this pesky fee.
Airlines That Charge Online Booking Fees
Scan the list, and you'll see that almost every budget airline in the country – big and small, new and old – tacks on an additional booking fee.
Exactly what it's called and how much it costs varies from airline to airline. The fees have increased over time, too: What used to be a surcharge of just $13 or so each way just a few years ago has increased to at least $20 or more on most budget carriers. In some cases, it adds $50 or more each way to the cost of your ticket.
No matter what airline you book, you'll be paying these fees on budget carriers whether you:
- Book online directly through the airline's website
- Book online through a third-party online travel agency like Expedia, Hopper, and many more
- Book by phone
Some airlines tack on a flat fee no matter what flights you're booking, while the online booking penalty varies for others.
Allegiant levies what it calls an Electronic Carrier Usage Charge on every ticket. It's a flat $22 per passenger, per segment fee.
That means it adds $44 on each and every Allegiant roundtrip ticket when you book online or by phone. Head to the airport instead, and you could book this $80 roundtrip fare from Baltimore (BWI) to Sarasota (SRQ) for just $36 total.
Avelo is one of the nation's newest low-cost carriers, but it took a page out of the older budget airlines' playbook with these fees.
Avelo calls it a “Carrier Electronic Usage Charge.” As of publication, the airline says it adds “up to $27” per passenger, per segment. That means it could add as much as $54 to the cost of your roundtrip ticket, though you might see smaller surcharges.
But it's hard to determine exactly how much you could save by booking Avelo flights in person. Unlike most carriers on this list, Avelo never explicitly discloses how much in Carrier Electronic Usage Charges are built into the cost of the fare.
Breeze is another relatively new low-cost carrier, operating flights between smaller cities up and down the East Coast and Deep South. And its online booking fee is among the worst.
Breeze lists a “Technology Development Charge” on its website, but doesn't list how much that fee is. In practice, it ranges from under $20 to $40 or more per person, each way. Some passengers have noticed fees as large as $54 each way!
On this $72 one-way flight from Akron (CAK) to Fort Myers (RSW), for example, the airline is tacking on a $33 charge for booking online.
But Breeze also makes it harder to avoid this fee by booking flights at the airport. The airline says it will only sell tickets in-person during a two-hour window once a week: on Tuesdays, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. ET, as of publication.
Frontier levies what it calls a “CIC”, or “Carrier Interface Charge.” As of publication, Frontier says it charges “up to $23” per passenger, per segment.
That's what you'll almost always see when booking online with Frontier on all but the cheapest tickets. So while there's a $23 charge on this roughly $39 one-way fare from Minneapolis-St. Paul (MSP) to Denver (DEN) …
… it's just $4 when that same route drops below $19 each way.
Spirit is the airline most Americans think of when the words “low-cost carrier” come up. So of course, Spirit charges this fee, too.
With Spirit, it's called a “Passenger Usage Charge.” Exactly how much that costs you when booking online varies, though it appears to be capped at $22.99 as of publication. Sometimes, it's closer to just $10 or so.
See our Spirit Airlines Baggage Fees guide to learn how to save even more when flying Spirit.
Sun Country Airlines
Sun Country quietly joined the ranks of airlines tacking on these sneaky fees back in April 2022.
As of publication, Sun Country adds a “passenger interface charge” of at least $22 per segment, per passenger – an extra $44 or more on every roundtrip ticket.
And that's not a flat, $22 each way fee – it could be even more. Sun Country's terms clearly state they charge “from $22 per passenger, per segment,” leaving the door open to an even steeper surcharge.
Unlike most other carriers on this list that break out these extra fees, Sun Country does not – the airline simply lists the total cost, which it says “includes all applicable air taxes, fees, and carrier-imposed charges.” That makes it difficult to determine exactly how much you can save by buying tickets at the airport.
Is it $22 each way … or even more?
Book Your Tickets at the Airport to Save
Saving $20 or more on your (already cheap) budget airline ticket sounds awesome, right? Well, here's the catch: you have to go to the airport to avoid this fee.
For some, this will be easy and well worth the trouble – especially if you're booking flights for the whole family, live close to the airport, or can simply buy more tickets while you're already at the airport for a flight. For others, it would add too much in gas and parking or Uber fees for it to make sense.
Just keep in mind: You're buying your ticket in advance and then returning home – not buying tickets the day of your flight.
Here's how to prepare for your budget airline ticket booking at the airport:
- Know exactly which flight you want to book (with a few backup options) before you go. Use Google Flights to find the cheapest flights that work, determine how much you can save by bypassing these fees, and then head to the airport to buy them.
- If you're going to the airport soon for a trip anyway, plan to leave some extra time to purchase a future flight at the desk before going through security or before heading home.
- Make sure your airline is open for ticketing … and that could be a major challenge with some carriers. Spirit's preferred ticketing hours are fairly generous at many airports, while Allegiant's airport ticketing hours leave just an hour or two once a week at some locations. Breeze will only sell tickets in person on Tuesdays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. ET, while a Sun Country spokeswoman said the airline can sell tickets at its Minneapolis hub during normal operating hours. Here's Frontier's airport ticketing information and Avelo ticketing hours.
- Have a plan for the most affordable to get to the airport. Whether that's taking public transit, parking at an affordable ramp, or having a friend drop you off and pick you up, that's up to you! Just calculate whether the cost of driving to and/or parking at the airport is worth the money you'll save.
- Unfortunately, not every budget airline ticket agent will play so nice – and some may have never sold a ticket before. Prepare to be persistent to ensure you get the entire fee waived.
- These savings may come at a slight cost: steeper baggage fees. Many budget airlines like Spirit offer the lowest prices for carry-on bags or checked luggage when you buy them during the checkout process online – and that's not always an option when you go to purchase at the airport. Give it a shot, but keep in mind you might be on the hook for slightly higher baggage and other fees by modifying your ticket online afterward.
With your fares picked out and a plan in place, head to the airport for your fee-free budget airline ticket.
Is this little-known trick worth the savings? That depends on how much it saves you per ticket, how many tickets you need to buy, and what it costs you (in money and time) to get to the airport to avoid paying these pesky fees.
In the end, only you can decide. But this is a potentially easy way to make your cheap flights even cheaper.