How to Avoid Getting Gouged with Fees on Low-Cost Airlines

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You’d better do your homework if you’re trying to save money on a flight with airlines such as Spirit. (Photo: Getty Images)

By Jason Notte

Spirit, Frontier, and Allegiant airlines are built on stripped-down low fares, but travelers have to dodge a whole lot of fees to get the deals.

If you’re flying into or out of big Spirit hubs including Orlando, Fort Lauderdale, Myrtle Beach, Houston, Dallas, Las Vegas, Detroit, or Minneapolis, the low-cost carrier should be among your options. The same holds true for Frontier in Denver, St. Louis, D.C., Philadelphia, Orlando, and Miami, and Allegiant in southern locales such as Phoenix/Mesa, Los Angeles, Tampa, and Fort Meyers.

But Anne Banas, an analyst for TripAdvisor travel site Smarter Travel, suggests consulting a fee chart before lunging at fares “starting at $120.”

“It’s common among the three airlines you’ve mentioned, and I think it’s going to start being a trend among other airlines as well, is this notion of tiered pricing or tiered fees,” she says. “It’s so convoluted and there are so many different prices for everything and it creates a lot of confusion.”

Spirit, in particular, has woven a complicated web of fees that can tack $200 to the cost of each leg of a trip just by adding luggage to the equation. Its baggage fees are set up in three tiers: one for club members, another for online customers and a third for everyone else. It charges $26 to $100 along that scale for a carry-on bag and $21 to $100 for the first checked bag. If you want the lowest fees, you have to join the airline’s “$9 Fare Club,” which now costs $19.95 for a 60-day trial, $59.95 for the first year and $69.95 for each year thereafter. These aren’t even multiples of $9.

Related: Seriously? Spirit Airlines Raises Bag Fees For Holiday Travelers

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You’ll need to pay extra for seat selection with Frontier. (Photo: Aero Icarus/Flickr)

“You can join Spirit’s Fare Club, get a super-cheap sale rate and travel with no luggage and get the true, ultra-low cost, but nobody really flies that way,” Banas says. “Most people do have to bring something, so it’s usually up to the consumer to figure all of this out in advance.”

That doesn’t include fees for seat selection that range from $1 to $199 per leg and a $25 fee for bags considered “overweight” at 41 pounds, or roughly 10 pounds lighter than the maximum for carriers including Delta, United, U.S. Airways, American, JetBlue, and Southwest. Spirit is far from alone in charging that particular fee; Allegiant hits passengers with a $50 fee if their luggage exceeds 41 pounds.

Related: Carry-on Junkie or Chronic Bag Checker? What Your Luggage Habits Say About You

“The consumer needs to make sure they thoroughly understand the ‘hidden’ costs that are that can be up 35% of the airline ticket,” says Tom Spagnola, senior vice president of supplier relations at online/traditional travel agency CheapOair. “It is imperative that the consumer does their research on the additional costs for baggage, seat assignments, checking in online vs. checking in at the ticket counter, meals, carry-on luggage and other potential cost that the customer might subject themselves to.”

Allegiant charges anywhere from $10 to $75 per leg for a carry-on bag, $15 to $75 for a checked bag, and up to $80 for seat selection, not including priority boarding ($4 to $12) or larger seats ($50 to $90). Frontier, meanwhile, charges $25 to $50 for a carry-on and $20 to $25 for a checked bag, though the latter increases to $30 to $35 in May. It also tacks up to $8 onto the cost for seat selection and anywhere from $5 to $100 for premium seating.

Allegiant charges extra for carry-on and checked bags. (Andrew W. Sieber/Flickr)

Even if you find a shortcut around those fees, fully expect the low-cost airlines to close it almost immediately.

“They’re always catching on, and it may not seem that reactive, but it is reactive,” Banas says. “They realize that people are carrying on things instead of checking in bags to avoid bag fees, so they start charging carry-on bag fees, too, and get travelers on both ends.”

So what is a beleaguered passenger to do? Follow Banas’ advice and do your homework. With even JetBlue ditching its nonexistent fees for first checked bags for a tiered system, it’s worth looking into the airline’s policies in advance and taking advantage of online discounts when possible. CheapOair’s Spagnola agrees, but also advises passengers to book tickets as far in advance as possible to lock in “super low fares” that even low-cost carriers offer only in limited amounts. He also advises being flexible and booking one-way flights if the math works out better.

Also, he notes that low-cost carriers tend to save passengers money by flying into secondary-market airports, so take advantage of that proximity. For example, if you’re taking a Frontier flight from Philadelphia or New York and can save a few bucks by leaving from Trenton instead, take the drive. If an Allegiant flight from Orlando/Sanford or Tampa looks pricey, consider Fort Myers/Punta Gorda instead. In Spirit’s case consider flying into Latrobe instead of Cleveland or Atlantic City instead of Philly or New York. If even those options don’t pan out, just remember that sometimes a low-cost carrier isn’t offering the lowest cost or simplest option available.

“There are some cases where it works out in Spirit’s favor and others where it works out in another airline’s favor,” Banas says. “Airfares fluctuate so much and there isn’t any one source or one airline that’s going to have the best airfare all the time. On other airlines that aren’t Spirit, Allegiant or Frontier, the math is just a lot simpler.”

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