Airline Fees Comparison

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Photo credit: andresr/istockphoto

In an industry pinched by low margins, airlines continually add and raise fees for what used to be considered the basics. With so many ancillary charges to keep track of, and different price structures for different airlines, it can be hard for consumers to make an informed choice about which carrier will ultimately be best for their travel budget (and their sanity). We delved into the fine print to aggregate all the supplemental fees — including baggage fees, change fees, and other optional service charges — for nine top U.S. carriers and put together detailed charts for easy comparison across airlines.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from our research: Budget carriers like Spirit Airlines, Allegiant Air, and Frontier Airlines may promise big savings on tickets upfront, but backend charges can offset those initial discounts. The promise of not paying for anything you don't need (which, apparently, includes an overnight bag) might be appealing for someone taking a quick jaunt to a nearby city with nothing but a briefcase. Not so for those traveling with small children or planning to descend on relatives loaded with holiday gifts. Couples who want guaranteed seats together as they embark on a romantic getaway should know that they're also going to pay more for that privilege on most low-cost carriers.

Indecisive travelers, or those with unpredictable schedules, should take into account that most airlines now charge hefty fees for schedule revamps and cancellations — at least $200 on most major carriers. Book a ticket with frequent flyer miles and you may be looking at not only a cancellation fee but a price to get those miles redeposited into your account. Want a furry friend by your side? Some carriers are more pet-friendly than others.

At the same time, there may be some upgrades that are worth the extra expense. The basics aside, travelers these days are often forced to decide whether they're willing to pay a premium for creature comforts such as a little more legroom. How much would you be willing to spend to make it through the airport a little faster, or upgrade to an earlier position in the boarding queue? Do you have to be on Wi-Fi at all times for work? Gone are the days when nuts and soft drinks were the signature complimentary in-flight amenities. With many airlines now charging for even so much as a sip of soda, your choice of carrier might be influenced by whether or not you want to add loading up on snacks to your pre-flight checklist.

The airline fees listed below apply to passengers traveling in the lowest fare class on flights within the continental United States. Some are waived or reduced for passengers in higher fare classes, members who have reached a certain status in an airline's loyalty program, and/or customers who book with an airline-affiliated credit card.

Which Airlines Charge for Bags?

Baggage fees are big business for many airlines. Ultra-low-cost Spirit Airlines garnered 40 percent of its 2017 ancillary revenue from luggage charges, according to a recent study by consulting firm IdeaWorksCompany. Even the major carriers are getting in on this easy way to increase margins. Although most still allow a free carry-on bag, charges for checked baggage have become standard. American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, and United Airlines all raised their fees in 2018: $30 for the first checked bag and $40 for the second are now the going rates. Alone among domestic airlines, Southwest Airlines allows travelers to check two bags at no charge.

AirlineCarry-On BagChecked BagsOverweight BaggageOversize Baggage
Alaska (Virgin America)Free1st: $30
2nd: $40
3rd: $100
$100 (51-100 lbs.)$100 (63-115 in.)
Allegiant$10-$75$18-$50$50 (41-70 lbs.)
$75 (71-100 lbs.)
$75 (80+ in.); $50-$75 for oversize personal item (>16x15x7 in.) or carry-on
AmericanFree1st: $30
2nd: $40
3rd: $150
Additional: $200
$100 (51-70 lbs.)
$200 (71-100 lbs.)
$200 (63+ in.)
DeltaFree1st: $30
2nd: $40
3rd: $150
Additional: $200
$100 (51-70 lbs.)
$200 (71-100 lbs.)
$200 (63-80 in.)
Frontier$35-601st: $30-$60
2nd: $45-$55
Additional: $85-95
$75 (51-100 lbs.)$75 (63-110 in.)
JetBlueFree1st: $30
2nd: $40
Additional: $150
$150 (51-99 lbs.)$150 (63-80 in.)
SouthwestFree1st: Free
2nd: Free
Additional: $75
$75 (51-100 lbs.)$75 (63-80 in.)
Spirit$35-$651st: $30-$65
2nd: $40-$60
Additional: $85-$100
$30 (41-50 lbs.)
$55 (51-70 lbs.)
$100 (71-100 lbs.)
$100 (63-80 in.)
$150 (81+ in.)
UnitedFree
(No carry-on with Basic Economy)
1st: $30
2nd: $40
Additional: $150
$100 (51-70 lbs.)
$200 (71-100 lbs.)
$200 (63-115 in.)

Almost every carrier we looked at charges at least $18 each way for the first checked bag on a domestic flight if you're traveling on a standard economy ticket. Expect to add an extra $30 to $200 if the bag weighs more than 40 or 50 pounds or measures more than 62 linear inches (length + width + height). That's not to mention additional fees for specialized items such as sporting equipment, although exceptions generally are made for strollers, child seats, and mobility aids. And keep in mind that you pay baggage fees each way for round-trip flights. With low-cost carriers, fees sometimes depend on the date of travel, destination, and whether you pay for checked bags during online booking (lowest fee), at online check-in, through the airline's reservation center, at an airport kiosk or counter, or at the gate.

How to Avoid Paying for Extra Luggage

There are a few ways to avoid fees for checked baggage, however. Most airlines, including American, United, Delta, JetBlue Airways, and Alaska Airlines, have partnered with credit card companies to create branded cards, and many of these offer a free checked bag for passengers who pay for their flights using affiliated plastic. Road warriors who've earned sufficient status in a frequent flyer program often are likewise rewarded (as are passengers in higher fare classes).

Alaska Airlines (which recently acquired Virgin America) has a free program called Club 49 for residents of its namesake state, which offers members two complimentary checked bags per flight (usually $25 each), among other perks. Active-duty military personnel receive up to five bags free. United offers a novel alternative to a la carte fees: a baggage subscription service that starts at $349. At United's $30 rate, the lowest-cost one-bag subscription would pay for itself after about six round-trip flights.

Do Airlines Charge for Carry-ons?

The most tried-and-true method of avoiding baggage fees with the traditional carriers is to confine belongings to a carry-on and a "personal item" that fits under the seat in front of you. But many low-cost airlines charge for carry-on bags, as well (passengers are still allowed one free personal item on the plane). With Spirit and Frontier, it's actually $5 cheaper to check a bag than to carry on. Frontier charges $35 to $60 for a carry-on, Spirit charges $35 to $65, and Allegiant charges $10 to $75 per segment flown, depending on how far in advance the fee is paid. Considering the exorbitant rates attached to bags checked at the gate, it's imperative that travelers make reasonable luggage estimates (and stick to them!) when booking a flight.

United, alone among the three major carriers, requires passengers traveling on its Basic Economy fare to pay to check any baggage aside from a personal item — no carry-ons allowed. American and Delta also have a Basic Economy fare option, which in many ways mimics the price structure of a budget carrier, with lower prices and fewer amenities. American originally followed United's lead, allotting no overhead bin space to Basic Economy passengers, but subsequently revoked the restriction. All American and Delta passengers get a free carry-on bag.

Which Airline Has the Best Cancellation Policy?

The Department of Transportation requires airlines to allow all customers 24 hours to cancel a reservation without penalty (or hold it without payment, as long as they're booking at least a week in advance). After that, Basic Economy tickets are not eligible for changes. Fees for changing other tickets may vary depending on when and how (online or offline) the booking is changed or canceled, the type of fare purchased, the duration, or destination of the flight. Customers must also pay the difference in price if the new fare is higher than the original. On the other hand, if the ticket costs less, the airline may refund the difference, often in the form of credit for a future flight. Some airlines let passengers stand by on a different flight on the same day for free, if there's space available, but charge a fee for a confirmed seat. Booking a flight for an unaccompanied minor, for a pet, or by phone typically costs extra as well.

AirlineDomestic Change/ CancellationAward Ticket Change/ CancellationSame Day Confirmed Change/ CancellationPetsUnaccompanied MinorsTicketing
Alaska (Virgin America)$125$125$25 (shuttles or within Calif.) or $50$100$50 nonstop/direct; $75 connecting$15 by phone
Allegiant$75/segmentN/A (credit voucher issued)No changes within 7 days of departure without TripFlex$100/segment in cabin onlyN/A (passengers under 15 must be accompanied by adult)$15/segment by phone; $5 to print boarding pass at some airports
American$200$150$75$125 in cabin; $200 in cargo$150$25 by phone; $35 in person; $10-$16 extended hold (3-7 days on eligible itineraries)
Delta$200$150$75$125 in cabin; varies for Delta Cargo$150Free
FrontierFree (up to 90 days before), $49 (14-89 days), or $119 (13 days or less)$75$119$75 in cabin only$110$10 by phone
JetBlue$75-$200
(depends on fare)
$75-$200$75$125 in cabin only$100$25 by phone
SouthwestFreeFreeFree$95 in cabin only$50Free
Spirit$90 online; $100 by phone or at airport$110$90-$100 up to 1 hour before$110 in cabin only$100$35 by phone; $2 at kiosk or $10 at counter to print boarding pass; $9 to $20/segment passenger usage charge; $7 regulatory compliance charge (each way); $10 fuel charge (each way)
United$200Up to $75 (depends on status) 61+ days before travel or $125 (60 days or less)Up to $75 (depends on status)$125 in cabin; varies in cargo with PetSafe$150$25 by phone; $30 at ticket office; $50 at airport

In the past few years, United, Delta, and American have raised their fees for altering reservations on domestic flights to $200 or more, and fees on most other top carriers run between $75 and $150. Southwest is, again, the most generous of the airlines, allowing its customers free changes and cancellations on all flights at any time prior to departure. Frontier modified its policies to allow free changes to tickets up to 90 days before travel, and fees for changes closer to the date of travel are comparatively reasonable, as well.

Will Airlines Waive Change Fees?

Change and cancellation fees are often lower for award tickets purchased with miles. Again, customers with status in a loyalty program or an airline-affiliated credit card can sometimes avoid these fees altogether. Several carriers also have pricier refundable tickets and premium economy fares or packages that exempt passengers from fees if they wish to cancel or alter their itineraries.

For example, paying a bit extra up front for Frontier's "The Works" bundle offers travelers no change fees, a full refund with cancellation, a free carry-on and checked bag, priority boarding, seat selection, and access to preferred seats. The cost varies by flight and is assessed each way. We ran the numbers for a sample flight from New York (LaGuardia) to Las Vegas and found that it would cost $112.06 each way to add The Works to the base fare of $343.20, for a grand total of $567.32. Paying à la carte instead for a carry-on, a checked bag, and the cheapest seat selections would bring the total to $523.20. That's less than the bundle, true, but lacks premium seating, priority boarding, and the peace of mind that comes with knowing the ticket's covered should a last-minute hiccup scuttle the trip.

(A similar bundle, "The Perks," doesn't waive the change and cancellation fees but otherwise offers the same benefits. The bundle can also be added to an existing ticket; "The Works" must be purchased at the time of booking. For our sample ticket, however, it would cost $115.44 each way. In other words, we'd be paying more money for fewer perks.)

On JetBlue, the cost to change or cancel a flight depends on the price of the ticket, the fare type, and the number of days until departure. With the exception of Blue Flex tickets, which allow free schedule adjustments, the lowest change fee applies at least 60 days before departure. JetBlue's graduated fees ensure that the charge won't be higher than the original airfare, a genuine possibility on other airlines.

Other Ticketing Fees

Take a look at the fine print before booking a flight with a smaller "budget" airline, as there may be fees in places you hadn't even considered. For example, Spirit assesses a $10 fee just for printing your boarding pass at the airport counter. A couple of other unique fees are built into the airline's quoted fares: a "Passenger Usage Fee" of $9 to $20 per segment, avoidable only if you book in person at the airport, a $10 fuel charge each way, and a "Regulatory Compliance Charge" of $7 each way, a reaction to the Department of Transportation rule that allows consumers to cancel within 24 hours.

Unaccompanied minor services are generally available for an additional fee (each way) for children between 5 and 17 but may not be required for ages 12 to 17. They are usually limited to nonstop or direct flights. Of the airlines we looked at, only Allegiant does not allow any child under the age of 15 to travel without an adult companion.

For travel with "fur babies," Frontier and Southwest are the airlines that are cheapest to fly with pets. Individual policies vary when it comes to what types of pets are allowed on board — some airlines limit cabin companions to dogs and cats — but the general rule is that the animal must fit in a carrier that can be stowed beneath the seat in front of you. Although some airlines only allow pets to accompany owners on board, given liability issues around transporting animals in cargo, a few do offer this alternative. Delta and United recently instituted major policy changes with pet safety in mind. United's PetSafe program was put together in partnership with American Humane and makes a point of ensuring that the on-board compartments and holding facilities are climate-controlled for pets' health and comfort. Owners can even use online tracking services to monitor pets' status along the route.

Airline Seating and Other Amenities

Airlines increasingly are charging for perks related to seating — more legroom, priority boarding, a preferred location, or even the privilege of choosing a seat at all, which used to be standard. Preferred seats may include aisle and window seats toward the front of the plane, bulkhead seats, and/or emergency-exit-row seats. Premium coach seating generally constitutes extra legroom and priority boarding. Additional airline fees commonly concern onboard amenities. Most airlines still offer complimentary soft drinks, juice, coffee, and tea (and sometimes a snack, as well), but a few have started charging even for non-alcoholic drinks.

AirlineSeat SelectionPriority BoardingNon-Alcoholic Drinks & SnackEntertainment/Wi-Fi
Alaska (Virgin America)Free; starting at $15 for more legroom or premiumN/AFree drinks; $4-$10 snack boxes and mealsFree streaming video; $8-$10 for in-flight entertainment player; $2-$50 for Wi-Fi
Allegiant$0-$80$4-$12$2-$7N/A
AmericanFree; $4-$139 for preferred; $20-$280 for Main Cabin Extra$9-$74; included with Main Cabin ExtraFreeFree streaming video; $10 for Wi-Fi (subscriptions available)
DeltaVaries by routeVaries by routeFreeFree streaming video; $16 and up for Wi-Fi; free messaging
Frontier$6-$11 and up; $20 or $25 and up for StretchIncluded with The Perks and The Works bundles$2 and upN/A
JetBlueFree; starting at $10 for Even More SpaceIncluded with Even More SpaceFreeFree streaming video and Wi-Fi
SouthwestN/A (no assigned seats)$15 for EarlyBird Check-In; $30 or $40 for guaranteed Group A boardingFreeFree streaming video; $8 for Wi-Fi; free messaging
Spirit$1-$50; $12-$175 for Big Front Seat$6 for Shortcut Boarding (Zone 2); up to $15 for Shortcut Security$2 and upWi-Fi available on select flights (avg. $7)
UnitedFree; $9 and up for Economy PlusStarting at $15/segment for Premier AccessFreeFree streaming video/United Private Screening devices on some flights; $3-$42 for Wi-Fi (varies per hour or per flight)

Most carriers now offer premium seating for a price. United offers an annual subscription service for its Economy Plus option, which provides more spacious seating toward the front of the plane for quicker debarkation. That subscription starts at $499, however, and doesn't guarantee an Economy Plus seat will always be available. Alaska Airlines' Premium Class seating includes more legroom, complimentary drinks and snacks, and early boarding. The cost starts at $15 and rises with segment distance.

On the other side of the aisle, with many budget carriers — Spirit, Allegiant, and Frontier included — the seating fee isn't paid in the interest of extra legroom or a premium location; it's a fee for choosing any seat at all, which can increase costs for families or couples who want to make sure they sit together. Spirit charges up to $50 to choose a seat rather than have one assigned, and fees on Allegiant can run up to a whopping $80.

The boarding process for Southwest differs greatly from other airlines' procedures. Instead of being assigned a seat, passengers are given a letter and number code that determines their boarding order. When their group is called, they can choose any open seat. That means Southwest customers won't see any fees for preferred seat assignments or premium seats with extra legroom. Boarding order is assigned based on check-in time, which explains an optional $15 charge for EarlyBird Check-In — 12 hours earlier than other passengers, for a greater chance of finding an ideal seat. Southwest also lets customers pay $30 to $40 for a guaranteed position in the first boarding group.

U.S. Carriers Ranked From Worst to Best


SPIRIT AIRLINES
Fees, Fees, and More Fees
Fans of Spirit's brand of "unbundled" airline pricing say: Why pay for what you don't need? But the rock-bottom ticket prices are accompanied by charges for virtually everything else — a lot of which may not feel like it should be considered "extra." Spirit also has some unique fees that other airlines don't charge. A mandatory "passenger usage charge" adds about $18 or $40 to a round-trip ticket, a "regulatory compliance charge" tacks on another $14, and there's even a $10 fuel charge each way.

Spirit Airlines

Carry-on bag: $35-$65 (depending on when the fee is paid)
First checked bag: $30-$65
Overweight baggage: $30 and up (41 lbs. and up)
Oversize baggage: $100 and up (63 in. and up)
Pets: $110 (cabin only)
Unaccompanied minors: $100
Change/cancellation: $90 online, $100 by phone or at the airport
Booking by phone: $35
Boarding passes printed at airport: $2 or $10
Seat selection: $1-$50
Non-alcoholic drinks and snacks: $2 and up


ALLEGIANT AIR
Low Fares, Lots of Fees
This discount airline charges numerous fees, including $2 for non-alcoholic drinks and as much as $80 for the privilege of choosing a seat. Also, Allegiant assesses some fees by segment (one takeoff and landing), so travelers could end up paying multiple times before reaching their final destination. Reservations made on the website or through the call center, for example, carry a charge of $18 per segment.

Allegiant Air

Carry-on bag: $10-$75 (depending on route and when the fee is paid)
First checked bag: $18-$50 (depending on route and when the fee is paid)
Overweight baggage: $50 and up (41 lbs. and up)
Oversize baggage: $75 (81 in. and up)
Pets: $100 per segment (cabin only)
Unaccompanied minors: $0 (under 15 not allowed)
Change/cancellation: $75 per segment
Booking by phone: $15 per segment
Boarding passes printed at airport: $5
Seat selection: $0-$80
Non-alcoholic drinks and snacks: $2-$7


FRONTIER AIRLINES
Bundles May Offer Bargains
Some of Frontier's fees are actually lower than many other airlines' (for instance, changes and cancellations are free or relatively inexpensive, although the charges increase as the travel date approaches). Unexpected fees for non-alcoholic beverages and any bags beyond a personal item are sure to aggravate some passengers, however. Many add-ons are waived with the purchase of a bundle like The Works (prices vary), which includes a free carry-on and checked bag — exemptions worth a minimum of $65 on this airline — in addition to boons such as seat selection, priority boarding, free changes, and a full refund with cancellation at least 24 hours before departure.

Frontier AirlinesCarry-on bag: $35-$60 (depending on travel date and when the fee is paid)
First checked bag: $30-$60 (depending on travel date and when the fee is paid)
Overweight baggage: $75 (51 lbs. and up)
Oversize baggage: $75 (63 in. and up)
Pets: $75 (cabin only)
Unaccompanied minors: $110 (nonstop flights only)
Change/cancellation: $0 (at least 90 days before), $49 (14-89 days before), or $119 (13 days or less)
Booking by phone: $10
Seat selection: $6-$11 and up
Non-alcoholic drinks and snacks: $2 and up


UNITED AIRLINES
Least Transparent on Fees
There's little difference in fees among the transcontinental legacy carriers (United, Delta, and American), but United was the first to increase its change fee to $200, and the airline also stands out for the extent to which it keeps its fees hidden — don't expect to find easily accessible and clearly laid out charts on the website. (We spoke with multiple agents to confirm the change fee.) United's Basic Economy fare (on select routes) is meant to compete with the stripped-down prices of ultra-low-cost carriers. But keep in mind that Basic Economy passengers traveling with luggage must pay to check it — no carry-ons allowed — and no changes can be made to these tickets.

United AirlinesCarry-on bag: $0
First checked bag: $30 (may depend on route)
Overweight baggage: $100 and up (51 lbs. and up)
Oversize baggage: $200 (63 in. and up)
Pets: $125 in cabin, varies in cargo with PetSafe program
Unaccompanied minors: $200
Change/cancellation: $200
Booking by phone: $25






AMERICAN AIRLINES
Few Options for Savings
American charges roughly the same fees as the other big names for things like checked bags ($30 and up) and reservation modifications ($200). While the airline once offered bundles (like Choice Plus) that provided money-saving benefits like change-fee waivers and complimentary checked luggage for a nominal price upfront, those options have been discontinued. American has also followed United's lead and now offers a downgraded fare option for travelers willing to forego seat selection and itinerary changes. American recently changed its policy to allow Basic Economy passengers the added "luxury" of one complimentary carry-on bag.

American AirlinesCarry-on bag: $0
First checked bag: $30
Overweight baggage: $100 and up (51 lbs. and up)
Oversize baggage: $200 (63 in. and up)
Pets: $125 in cabin, $200 in cargo
Unaccompanied minors: $150
Change/cancellation: $200
Booking by phone: $25







DELTA AIR LINES
Standard Fees, Stiff Award Penalties
With fees comparable to what the other transcontinental legacy carriers charge, Delta shouldn't surprise many travelers with its add-ons. Along with American and United, Delta waives certain checked-bag fees for customers with an airline-branded credit card. It one-ups those rivals by allowing passengers to use messaging apps like iMessage, Facebook Messenger, and WhatsApp without paying for in-flight Wi-Fi. However, Delta loyalists must shell out more for any changes or cancellations made to travel booked with reward miles: All but the top-level members can expect to pay $150 for changes, and miles cannot be redeposited for cancellations made less than 72 hours before departure.

Delta AirlinesCarry-on bag: $0
First checked bag: $30
Overweight baggage: $100 and up (51 lbs. and up)
Oversize baggage: $200 (63 in. and up)
Pets: $125 in cabin, varies by kennel size with Delta Cargo
Unaccompanied minors: $150
Change/cancellation: $200
Booking by phone: $0






JETBLUE AIRWAYS
Loaded With Free Amenities
JetBlue long ago joined the crowd charging for the first checked bag and has increased many of its fees of late, from change and cancellation to travel with pets. But the brand is still generous with the amenities it offers at no cost. On JetBlue, expect free DirecTV, as well as Wi-Fi and complimentary snacks more substantial than the usual pack of pretzels. Change and cancellation fees are graduated based on the price of the flight and fare type.

JetBlue AirwaysCarry-on bag: $0
First checked bag: $30
Overweight baggage: $150 (51 lbs. and up)
Oversize baggage: $150 (63 in. and up)
Pets: $125 (cabin only)
Unaccompanied minors: $100
Change/cancellation: $75-$200 (depending on fare)
Booking by phone: $25







ALASKA AIRLINES
Low on Fees, Especially for Alaskans
With its recent acquisition of Virgin America, Alaska Airlines is estimated to be the fifth-largest airline in the United States, and proudly claims to offer the most West Coast nonstop flights. But it hasn't lost that "small-town" feel quite yet. Alaska still waives many fees for residents of its namesake state through the free Club 49 program and keeps extra charges relatively low for everybody else, too. Change and cancellation fees are near the lowest, and Alaska has one of the cheapest same-day change fees of any airline ($25-$50). One thing Virgin America fans will miss is a particularly generous checked baggage policy ($25 each for up to 10 bags). The only real oddity among Alaska's fees: a "left on board item return fee" of $20.

Alaska AirlinesCarry-on bag: $0
First checked bag: $30
Overweight baggage: $100 (51 lbs. and up)
Oversize baggage: $100 (63 in. and up)
Pets: $100
Unaccompanied minors: $50 nonstop/direct, $75 connecting
Change/cancellation: $125
Booking by phone: $15







SOUTHWEST AIRLINES
The Lone Holdout
Southwest is hands-down the best airline for travelers worried about fees. It's the only one that lets passengers check up to two bags at no cost and charges no fee to change or cancel a flight. Customers pay only the difference in fare. Add to this free non-alcoholic drinks, snacks, and streaming video and text messaging, and it's easy to see how Southwest has earned the top spot among low-cost carriers two years in a row in J.D. Power's annual survey of customer satisfaction.

Southwest AirlinesCarry-on bag: $0
First checked bag: $0
Overweight baggage: $75 (51 lbs. and up)
Oversize baggage: $75 (63 in. and up)
Pets: $95 (cabin only)
Unaccompanied minors: $50
Change/cancellation: $0
Booking by phone: $0





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