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Air travel costs come in two parts: the face value of the ticket, and the many fees that airlines attach after the fact. Sometimes these fees can cost more than the fare itself. This isn’t a mistake: Airlines are vying for the lowest price in travel searches, hoping to make up the cost in hidden fees.
When searching for airfare, it helps to know which airlines tack on more fees. For example, is a $100 fare on a budget airline like Frontier Airlines ultimately cheaper than a $159 fare from Delta? Or will Frontier’s add-on fees for seat assignments and carry-on bags shrink the difference?
Determining which airlines have the best and worst fees is no small feat, and it can get complex in a hurry. To help make sense of these fees and minimize the complexity, we performed an analysis of seven major airlines across two fee categories: baggage fees and seat assignment fees.
We aimed to answer this question: What are the average additional fees on each airline? That is, how much extra will it cost to select a seat, bring one overhead carry-on and check one bag?
Note: Most airlines have now eliminated change fees on most fares, so those are not included in this analysis.
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Best (lowest) fees
Winner: Southwest Airlines
Southwest has made low fees a cornerstone of its business, so its $13 average result is no surprise. The gap would be even greater had other airlines not followed Southwest’s lead in eliminating change fees.
The variation among airline programs is surprising. Delta and United are considered “full-service carriers” yet have average fees more in line with a budget airline like Frontier. And Alaska and Hawaiian tie for second place with a modest $30 markup.
It’s important to keep in mind that these numbers are averages based on a hypothetical customer who selects a seat, carries on one bag and checks one bag. It includes fees for both main cabin and basic economy fares. The fees for any given ticket and situation will vary significantly from this average. If you don’t check a bag or choose a seat, your average fees will be lower.
Winner: Southwest Airlines
For this part of the analysis, we asked a simple question: How much does it cost to check one bag and bring one full-size carry-on, in the lowest available fare class on a domestic flight?
The results are fairly straightforward. Southwest charges absolutely no bag fees. American, Alaska, Delta and Hawaiian charge $30 for a checked bag, while JetBlue charges $35 for the same. Frontier and United both charge for overhead carry-ons, though United technically doesn’t allow overhead carry-ons for basic economy, charging $25 to gate check the bag instead. We consider this a “gotcha” fee and include it in the total cost.
Many airlines offer branded credit cards that offset these fees, quickly making up for their annual fee for travelers who fly with bags. So these fees are less of a concern for those with such a credit card, those who have elite status or those who pack light.
Note: We did not include international baggage fees in this analysis. These fees vary by destination, airline and whether partner airlines are involved.
Seat selection fees
Winners: Alaska Airlines and Hawaiian Airlines
One of the sneakiest fees, seat selection pricing has become commonplace in recent years, even among full-service airlines. Some airlines carry simple and predictable fees for seat selection; others offer byzantine systems that effectively set different prices for each seat on the plane.
Determining a system for comparing seat selection fees, therefore, was a challenging task. We compared three seat selection scenarios on each airline:
A basic economy (or similar) fare, selecting a window seat near the front of the aircraft.
A main cabin (or similar) fare, selecting a window seat near the front of the aircraft.
A main cabin (or similar) fare, selecting a window seat anywhere on the aircraft.
We did not select seats with bonus amenities, such as additional legroom or free alcoholic drinks. We averaged the price of each of the three scenarios to determine the average seat selection fee. Southwest does not technically carry seat selection fees but does offer an “EarlyBird Check-In” system, which amounts to the same outcome of getting your choice of seat before the vast majority of other customers, so it was included here.
We were surprised by these results, especially the sky-high fees for selecting a decent seat on Delta flights. Selecting a seat near the front of the plane on a main cabin fare cost an average of $84.99 on Delta, higher even than Frontier, a budget airline.
Alaska and Hawaiian, on the other hand, did not charge for seat selection using the criteria we selected. Some seats on these two airlines do carry a charge, but it was always possible to find a decent window seat for free on the flights we compared.
It seems that, as change fees have disappeared, some major airlines (notably Delta) are experimenting with charging outrageous seat selection fees to make up the lost revenue. We recommend either skipping seat selection altogether on these airlines (even if it means risking a middle seat placement) or choosing another airline altogether.
» Learn more: How to choose a travel credit card
The bottom line
Airline fees are a complicated headache, and it can be easy to give up on trying to understand them. Yet we found that airlines differ significantly in the frequency and cost of baggage and seat selection fees. Choosing to fly with Southwest, Alaska and Hawaiian and avoiding Delta, United and Frontier is a good 80/20 solution for avoiding these pesky fees.
If you don’t have much choice in which airline to fly, consider other strategies for avoiding fees: Get a branded airline credit card that covers baggage fees, and opt out of seat selection altogether whenever possible. You might get stuck in a middle seat near the bathroom, but you might also score a seat near the front of the plane without paying a dime.
Note that we did not cover every airline fee in this analysis. Wi-Fi, food and even a bottle of water on some airlines can tack on even more to the base price of your airfare. This “a la carte” approach to pricing means lower costs in travel search engine results but higher overall costs. Savvy customers can take advantage of this system by both understanding it and opting out of the more ludicrous add-ons.
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