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When you’re shopping for flights, the price you see in the online travel search engines may not be the total cost of the flight you can expect to pay. Airline fees can increase the price significantly. In some cases, these extra fees can even exceed the original price of your ticket.
Here are some of the airline add-on fees to watch out for and a few tips to avoid paying them.
Common airline add-on fees
1. Checked bag fees
Checked bag fees keep going up. Airlines now charge up to $35 or more each way for the first checked bag. For a family of four, that’s an extra $280 for a round-trip flight. Airlines usually charge even more for a second checked bag or if your bag is too heavy or too big.
How to avoid checked bag fees
Many airline credit cards include the first checked bag for free for you and sometimes for travel companions on the same itinerary. Airline elite status and some ticket types (particularly premium classes) also include free checked bags. Or, you can fly Southwest Airlines, which gives passengers two free checked bags on every flight.
» Learn more: Which airlines have the best (and worst) fees?
2. Flight change and cancellation fees
If you need to change or cancel a flight, airlines may charge a fee to adjust your ticket. For some flights, the fees can be more than the price of your ticket. In those cases, it may not be worth it to cancel your flight — all that you’ll get is a travel credit worth less than what you paid in cancellation fees.
How to avoid change or cancellation fees
During coronavirus pandemic, many major U.S. airlines eliminated change or cancellation fees for tickets purchased both with cash and rewards. Take advantage of these relaxed rules while you can by searching for deals on a future trip and booking now, knowing you can get a travel credit with no fees if you change your mind.
Further, if you’re a top-tier elite member of certain airline loyalty programs, like American Airlines AAdvantage, you can make changes for free.
This ticket flexibility often extends to non-basic economy tickets. Only book the lowest tier fare if you're 100% confident that your travel plans won't change.
» Learn more: When should you book basic economy?
3. Seat selection fees
Some airlines charge a premium if you want to choose your seat ahead of your flight. This makes it harder to ensure that you can sit next to your travel companions. Plus, if you want a coveted bulkhead, exit row or other seat with more legroom, you can expect to pay even more out of pocket.
How to avoid seat assignment fees
In general, we recommend not paying for seat selection at all. Airlines sometimes make it seem like you must choose a seat and pay the fee, but you don't. You risk being placed toward the back of the plane or in the middle seat, but you will save some money.
Other options to avoid seat selection fees include earning elite status or booking a higher class of seats. In some loyalty programs, higher status puts you toward the front of the line for the first choice. Plus, you may even be able to score an upgrade to business or first class. When you book a premium cabin, you generally get your choice of the available seats in that section of the plane at booking.
You can also fly Southwest Airlines, which has flyers both board and select seats based on the order in which they checked in.
» Learn more: How to hack Southwest's boarding groups
4. Carry-on bag fees
Many travelers stick to carry-on bags to avoid checked bag fees, eliminate the wait at baggage claim or prevent their bags from being delayed or lost. Some ticket classes on airlines now charge travelers for bringing a bag even onto the plane. If you want to use the overhead bins, you may have to pay extra. Most still allow a personal item that can fit under the seat.
How to avoid carry-on bag fees
The best option is to avoid purchasing the ticket types that charge carry-on bag fees. You can opt instead for the next class of tickets that allow a carry-on, which will likely be more expensive. If you're set on the cheapest fare, prepay for your carry-on bag whenever possible — it might be cheaper to book in advance rather than the day of your flight.
Of course, you could opt to pack lightly enough so that everything fits under the seat in front of you.
Travel credits that can erase airline fees
Some cards come with travel credits you can use to offset airline fees. This means if you use that specific card to cover the cost of extraneous fees, you might be entitled to a credit.
The Platinum Card® from American Express: Cardholders get $200 per year in credits to cover fees charged by your airline. Terms apply.
Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card: Pay for airline fees with your card then “erase” the purchase with your miles. You have up to 90 days after the transaction date to earn additional miles to pay for some or all of the fees.
Chase Sapphire Reserve®: Comes with $300 in travel credits to cover the cost of airline fees, flights, hotel bookings and other travel-related purchases.
Citi Prestige® Card: Use up to $250 per year to pay for travel costs including fees.
What qualifies for a credit varies from card to card and issuer to issuer. It is best to read through your card's terms and conditions to ensure any given airline fee is considered an eligible purchase.
» Learn more: What is the Capital One purchase eraser?
If you want to avoid airline fees
Airline fees are big business. According to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation, the airline industry earned $2.8 billion in 2020 from checked baggage fees alone. But by knowing your airline’s rules, understanding the benefits you’re entitled to as an elite member or having the right credit card, you’ll skip these fees and keep more of your money in your pocket.
The information related to the Citi Prestige® Card has been collected by NerdWallet and has not been reviewed or provided by the issuer or provider of this product or service.
How to Maximize Your Rewards
You want a travel credit card that prioritizes what’s important to you. Here are our picks for the best travel credit cards of 2021, including those best for:
Flexibility, point transfers and a large bonus: Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
No annual fee: Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card
Flat-rate travel rewards: Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card
Bonus travel rewards and high-end perks: Chase Sapphire Reserve®
Luxury perks: The Platinum Card® from American Express
Business travelers: Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card