Beware These Sneaky Fees on Discount Airfare


Discount airlines have broadened the base of those who can afford to fly. These no-frills carriers slash prices by limiting benefits and offering an a la carte airline experience. But sometimes, flying a discount airline isn't nearly as cheap as you think.

If you've ever priced airfare, you've probably wondered why discount carriers offer lower prices and how they do it. How can Allegiant Air afford to let you fly from Cincinnati to Fort Lauderdale for $122 or less? And how can an international airline like WOW Air stay afloat when a round-trip flight from Boston to Reykjavik, Iceland costs less than $320? (See also: Best Travel Rewards Credit Cards)

The answer is "unbundling," an industry practice that's been growing for the past decade. Back in the day, when you bought an airline ticket, you automatically got an advance seat assignment, checked bags, carry-ons, and even meals (it's true — ask your grandparents).

Then came deregulation and rising fuel costs, and multiple airlines went bankrupt. Those that survived sought to boost profits by unbundling all those included services, meaning you had to start paying for many things that were once baked into the airfare. Airlines pitched this as a consumer benefit — why pay for checked bags if you're just bringing a carry-on? And it is a good deal for some passengers, but it's also a way for the airlines to make money — more than they made before unbundling.

Hidden fees on discount airlines

Discount airlines have taken the unbundling concept to the extreme, making them the most beloved airlines by some, and the most despised by others.

Not only will you be charged for checking a suitcase, you'll also pay extra to carry on a bag too big to fit under your seat (in fact, Frontier Airline charges more for a carry-on than a checked bag). Usually, the earlier you pay for bags, the cheaper it will be. Wait until you get to the gate and you could pay as much as $100 for a carry-on.

Then there are fees for choosing a seat, which goes up the more legroom you ask for. And you'll have to cough up extra for printing your boarding pass at the airport, for booking using a credit card, and even for water onboard (Spirit Airlines is notorious for charging $3 for water unless you need it to take medicine).

Sometimes these fees can cost as much as the fare itself. Take Allegiant Air, for example. Round-trip airfare from Cincinnati to Fort Lauderdale rang in at around $122 for random dates in May, which is downright cheap. But if you dig a little deeper, you'll find the base fare includes almost nothing.

Want an assigned seat near a window or an aisle? There's a fee for that (at least $10 each way). Need extra leg room? Roomier seats on this particular Allegiant flight start at $21, each way. You can bring one "personal item" on the plane for free (think: a purse), but you'll have to pay another $30 round-trip to bring a standard carry-on.

If you want to check a bag, that's another $40 round-trip. And if you need an agent to print your boarding pass at the airport, that's another five buckaroos each way. Pay with a credit card? Tack on $8 each way.

All of a sudden, your $122 flight surges to $238. While that's still affordable as far as airfare goes, it's nearly twice as much as the base price you were tempted with.

The same thing is almost always true when you fly an international discount airline. That $320 WOW Air flight to Iceland? It's actually $523.92 when you add on taxes, a carry-on ($81.98 round-trip), a checked bag ($101.98 round-trip), and an assigned seat ($19.98 round-trip). Flying international for $524 is still pretty sweet, but the price is over $200 more than the $320 "teaser price."

How to win the discount airline game

When you're shopping with a discount airline, make sure you know what is — and what isn't — included. Once you're abreast of which services and add-ons are charged on top of your base fare, you can compare prices with other airlines on an apples to apples basis.

Here's a good example.

Let's say you want to fly round-trip from El Paso, Texas to San Diego, California on May 5 returning May 12th of this year. As of this writing, the total cost for your base fare is just under $80 with Allegiant Air. Score!

When you add on taxes ($60.37), basic seat selections ($18), a carry-on ($30), a checked bag ($40), and a printed boarding passes ($10), however, the price tag goes up to $228. Plus, it's an extra $16 if you pay with a credit card, so let's call it $244.

If you search for the same flight with other airlines on Expedia, you'll find prices start at around $388 on American Airlines. Your seat selection and a carry-on are included in your fare, but you'll likely need to pay for $25 for a checked bag. All things considered, the Allegiant flight is still an awesome deal, it's just not quite as awesome as the upfront pricing makes it seem.

The best way to navigate the total costs of your airfare is to run the numbers on every flight you book. You may have to go through a bunch of prompts and fine print to see how much more you'll pay for assigned seats, carry-on luggage, checked bags, and boarding passes. Make sure you understand whether each add-on price is for one way or round trip. Once you have a new price that includes the services you need, you can compare that price to what you'd pay on other airlines. Sometime, it's actually cheaper to just go with a legacy airline. (See also: Best Sign-Up Bonuses for Airline Miles Credit Cards)

If you really want to save money with a discount airline, you can always consider purchasing the bare-bones option. Make do with whatever seat they give you, carry only a small bag with you, and print your boarding pass at home. If you don't need a lot of luggage and can sit next to anyone, your airfare should be rock bottom. (See also: 10 Ways to Get Free (or Almost Free) Airline Tickets)

Also remember that at least one discount airline is known for "transfarency" — a term Southwest Airlines uses to describe its notable lack of fees. Southwest offers cut-rate airfare with no additional fees for seat selections, checked baggage, boarding passes, carry-ons, and even trip changes or cancellations. (See also: Why Southwest Is the Best Domestic Airline for Families)

At the end of the day, it's up to you to figure out what's included and find the best deal. Sometimes discount airlines really do offer the best pricing in the friendly skies. Other times, their prices are no more than gimmicks.

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