Airline Fees Guide
Finding a cheap flight these days isn't as straightforward as finding the lowest fare; consumers must factor in airline fees, as well. In an industry pinched by low margins, airlines continually add and raise fees for what used to be considered the basics. Budget carriers like Spirit Airlines, Allegiant Airlines, and Frontier Airlines, in particular, may promise big savings on tickets upfront, but backend charges can offset those initial discounts. To help consumers keep up with ever-changing costs, we've catalogued airline fees for 10 top U.S. carriers. This guide compares baggage fees, change fees, and other optional service charges across airlines.
Southwest Airlines has defined itself partly by eschewing fees. It’s no surprise that this budget carrier was the only low-cost airline to receive a 5 out of 5 rating for cost and fees in J.D. Power's annual North America Airline Satisfaction Study. It also came in first in the low-cost category overall.
JetBlue Airways earned an "about average" rating for cost and fees, but the airline offers some notable perks for free. Passengers praise the airline for providing complimentary (non-alcoholic) drinks and snacks more appealing than tiny packets of peanuts, and each seat comes with a personal entertainment system with free live DirecTV and high-speed Wi-Fi. It seems no JetBlue fees are high enough to dent consumers' overall satisfaction with the airline: It ranks second in J.D. Power's report, just below Southwest.
Alaska Airlines' fees for regular passengers are among the lowest across the board. The airline took first place among traditional carriers in the J.D. Power study, with top marks in every category but service experience and the only 5 out of 5 rating for cost and fees among its legacy airline competitors.
By contrast, the business model of carriers such as Spirit, Frontier, and Allegiant is to keep base fares low and offer the option to buy many add-ons, which frustrates travelers used to all-inclusive airfares. The consulting firm IdeaWorksCompany found that Spirit garnered 46.4 percent of its 2016 revenue from fees and other ancillary sources, followed by Frontier at 42.4 percent and Allegiant at 40 percent. No other airlines in the global survey rely more heavily on ancillary revenue.
That said, different travelers have different needs. A budget airline that offers cut-rate tickets and the promise of not paying for anything you don't need (which, apparently, includes an overnight bag) might be a fantastic fit for 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 looking for guaranteed seats together as they embark on a romantic getaway should know that they're going to pay more for the privilege on most ultra-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: A change of mind costs 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 Fido-friendly than others.
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 or a bit of in-seat diversion. And be prepared to load up on nibbles in advance. Gone are the days when chips and nuts were the complimentary signatures of in-flight amenities. Many airlines now charge for even so much as a sip of soda or water.
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 airline fees and provide detailed comparison charts. The fees listed below apply to passengers traveling in the lowest fare class on flights within the continental U.S. 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.
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Charges for checked baggage have become standard on most airlines. Together U.S. carriers raked in more than $4.2 billion in baggage fees in 2016, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, up from $3.8 billion in 2015.
$75 (71-100 lbs.)
$50-$75 for oversize personal item (>16x15x7 in.) or carry-on
$200 (71-100 lbs.)
$200 (71-100 lbs.)
2nd: $45 or $50
Additional: $80 or $85
$55 (51-70 lbs.)
$100 (71-100 lbs.)
$150 (81+ in.)
$200 (71-100 lbs.)
$100 (71-100 lbs.)
Almost every carrier we looked at charges at least $18 each way for the first checked bag if you're traveling in the lowest fare class on a domestic flight. Expect to add another $50 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. Airlines assess baggage fees each way for round-trip flights. The fees sometimes depend on the date of travel, destination, and whether you pay 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.
Alone among domestic airlines, Southwest includes two bags at no charge. There are a few ways to avoid fees for checked baggage on other airlines, as well. Most airlines, including American, United, Delta, JetBlue, and Alaska Airlines, have formed partnerships with credit companies to create branded credit 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).
While Alaska Airlines charges $25 a bag for the first two checked bags on flights outside of Alaska and $75 for additional bags, the airline has created a free program for residents of its namesake state, called Club 49, which offers members two complimentary checked bags per flight, among other perks. Active-duty military personnel receive up to five bags free. Virgin America also is comparatively generous in its baggage allotments. Although the airline charges $25 for a checked bag, the price for each bag remains the same whether passengers are checking one bag or 10, while competitors up their fees as the baggage tally rises.
While the most tried-and-true method of avoiding baggage fees with the traditional carriers is to confine belongings to a carry-on, many low-cost airlines charge for those, as well, and the rates for bags carried onboard are sometimes higher than for those stowed below. Frontier charges $30 to $60 for a carry-on, Allegiant Air charges $10 to $75 per segment flown, and Spirit Airlines charges $35 to $65, depending on how far in advance the fee is paid. With Spirit and Frontier, it's actually $5 cheaper to check a bag than to carry on (passengers are still allowed one free personal item on the plane). 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 offers a novel alternative to à la carte fees: a subscription service that starts at $349 a year and waives fees for two checked bags. At United's $25/$35 rate, that amounts to about four round-trip flights with two bags. United and American have also instituted a lower-priced ticket option, the Basic Economy fare, which in many ways mimics the price structure of an ultra-low-cost carrier. Most notably, travelers are charged for any carry-on baggage aside from a single personal item to be stowed under a seat. The airlines have presented the move as a victory for consumer choice: Frugal travelers willing to forgo things like seat selection can get the stripped down prices of a budget carrier along with the more extensive route map, partnership perks, and onboard amenities of a big-name brand. It has been met with some backlash, however.
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, fees may vary depending on when and how (online or offline) the booking is changed or cancelled and on the cost, duration, or destination of the flight. Change fees are assessed on top of any difference in fare. 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.
$100 by phone or at airport
* Exceptions generally are made for service animals.
Airline fees for changing or canceling flights generated nearly $2.9 billion for U.S. carriers in 2016, according to BTS data, accounting for 1.7 percent of total operating revenue. United Airlines, Delta Air Lines, and American Airlines 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, often varying based on when the request is made, the route, or the fare. 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. No changes can be made to United’s new Basic Economy tickets.
With 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 is charged for changes made 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 with change fees that can exceed $200.
Alaska Airlines' fees are also comparatively reasonable in this respect. The $125 change/cancellation cost is completely waived if the change is made at least 60 days before departure. A confirmed seat on another flight the same day costs only $25, the lowest such fee among the airlines we researched that offer this option. Its sister carrier, Virgin America, assesses a similar fee on some routes. JetBlue recently upped its same-day change fee to $75 from a relatively low $50.
Southwest stands out as the only airline that doesn't charge a fee for changing or canceling a domestic itinerary regardless of ticket type or frequent flyer status, although tickets purchased in the Wanna Get Away fare class are refunded in the form of credit, which must be used within one year of the booking date.
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 seating options or packages that exempt passengers from fees if they wish to cancel or alter their itineraries. For example, with its Power Trip package, Virgin America offers travelers no change fees, a checked bag, and priority security passage and boarding, as well as first dibs on preferred seating options. The cost of this service is $39 to $79 each way, which, not accounting for the other perks included, is significantly less than the $100 or $150 change fees normally charged by the airline.
Unaccompanied minor services are generally available for children between 5 and 17 but may not be required for ages 12 to 17. They are assessed each way and usually limited to nonstop or direct flights.
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 $18 each way, avoidable only if you book in person at the airport, and an "Unintended Consequences of DOT Regulations Fee" of $7 each way, a reaction to the Department of Transportation rule that allows consumers to cancel within 24 hours.
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.
Most carriers now offer premium seating for a price, and 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 and complimentary drinks and snacks, as well as 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.