The Real Cost of ‘Cheap’ FlightsThe lowest airfare is no bargain if it's attached to a string of fees.

We live in a golden age of travel savings. Discount carriers now offer cheap airfare to travelers everywhere. But those cheap tickets sometimes come with the high price of extra fees.

“Discount airlines may offer a lower price upfront, but they often squeeze in hidden charges that many don’t realize (they’ll pay) until after the fact,” said Holly Johnson, owner of frugal travel website Club Thrifty. Many traditional full-service airlines also have added fees in recent years.

Fortunately, tapping into some travel wisdom can help you avoid paying fees on the lowest airfare. Read on to see some of the sneaky costs that can ruin a bargain airfare — and get a few tips to save money on travel.

Change Fees
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Change Fees

The cost of those cheap airline tickets will go up — substantially — if you need to make a change to your tickets. “American Airlines charges may range from $75 to $200 to change your ticket,” said Lee Huffman, who writes about travel and travel hacking on his website Bald Thoughts.

Meanwhile, Delta Air Lines charges $200 for domestic flights and between $200 and $500 for international travel. JetBlue charges anywhere from $75 to $150 based on the tier ticket you purchase. Hawaiian Airlines charges between $30 and $300, plus fare difference, depending on whether you’re flying to a neighboring island, the mainland or an international destination.

To avoid or minimize such fees, it pays to know your airline’s policy. For example, Huffman said you can avoid the American Airlines fee if you hold Executive Platinum elite status.

Other airlines also offer ways to avoid these fees. Alaska Airlines offers free flight changes, so long as they’re requested 60 days out. United Airlines offers FareLock, which lets travelers who pay a service fee hold airfare for up to a week. And most airlines allow for free cancellations within 24 hours of booking time.

You can also fly Southwest Airlines, which does not charge a change fee. Also, consider getting airline ticket insurance. When purchased through an airline, this can protect you from absorbing the cost of a rescheduled flight. However, you still have to pay for the insurance.

Read: 10 Insider Secrets to Get a Free Flight

Baggage Fees
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Baggage Fees

Checked-bag fees start at between $25 and $35, and can go higher if your bag is heavier than 50 pounds, Huffman said. Fly round trip and expect to pay that fee twice.

To fly bags for free, you’ll need to:

  • Qualify for elite status on some airlines
  • Hold a competitive travel rewards credit card or loyalty card that offers the benefit
  • Buy a business-class or first-class ticket
  • Fly Southwest, which still allows customers to travel with two checked bags at no additional fee

As for carry-on bags, most major airlines still allow one per flier for free. However, a growing number of discount airlines have started to charge for carry-on luggage. Airlines that charge some version of this fee include Allegiant, Spirit and Frontier.

Related: Flight Attendants Dish Their Best Money-Saving Travel Tips

Printed Boarding Pass Fees
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Printed Boarding Pass Fees

Do you prefer to print your boarding pass at the airport instead of at home? You might have to pay for the privilege. For example, Allegiant charges $5 for printing your boarding pass “at select domestic airport locations.”

To avoid the fee and cut your travel costs, check in and print your pass at home up to 24 hours before your flight. Allegiant also offers free mobile check-in via the airline’s app.

Meal and Snack Costs
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Meal and Snack Costs

Unless we’re in first class, most travelers no longer expect a meal when flying domestic. In addition, a “standard soft drink and bag of pretzels will most likely not be included either,” said Grainne Kelly, who worked for a long time in the travel industry and now is CEO and founder of BubbleBum, the world’s first inflatable booster seat.

“Plan ahead and pack yourself plenty of snacks and other food to tide you over until you reach your destination,” she said. She also reminded travelers that they can’t bring liquids through security, “so you’ll need to purchase them near your gate or onboard the flight.”

If you don’t want to pay for water, you can carry an empty bottle through security and fill it at a water fountain before boarding.

Seat Upgrade Fees
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Seat Upgrade Fees

Many discount carriers do not offer seat assignments, but instead operate on a first-come, first-serve basis, said Kelly. “Plan to be at the gate early to queue up for a decent seat next to your family or travel companion,” she said.

On many other airlines, you’ll have to pay if you want a specific seat. For example, JetBlue charges extra for what it calls Even More Space seats and Delta charges for Delta Comfort+. Even Southwest — which doesn’t assign seats — charges $15 for an early boarding pass.

What’s a traveler to do? Some airlines are trying to curb fliers’ dread over the middle seat. Frontier installed wider middle seats in its Airbus A319 and A320 models.

Up Next: How to Book Last-Minute Travel Plans on the Cheap

 

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