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For Spirit, Frontier Airlines, ‘Tis the Season to Hike Bag Fees

In a move only the Grinch would approve of, low-cost U.S. airlines Spirit and Frontier are now hiking checked bag fees during the holidays and other peak travel periods.

Spirit Airlines, which charges for checked bags, seat assignments, refreshments and many other "optional" a-la-carte services year-round, first added the temporary $2 seasonal checked bag fee last year. Then it did it again over the summer.

The surcharge is back in force this holiday season, from Dec. 18 through Jan. 4, 2016.

Complaints from airline passengers are soaring 0:28

Why a temporary price hike?

During peak travel times an increase in the overall number of checked bags means "added costs for baggage handling, manpower, airport infrastructure and added weight to aircraft, which burns more jet fuel," explains Spirit spokesman Paul Berry. "Most airlines respond to these added costs by jacking up their ticket prices for everyone. However, we temporarily charge only those who are checking bags an extra $2 to cover the added cost."

Frontier Airlines, which has adopted Spirit's low base-cost/high-fee model, added its own peak travel surcharges for both checked and carry-on bags in June.

"We have luggage options that are higher during half the year," said airline spokesman Jim Faulkner, "The holidays are not singled out. March is the same price as Christmas."

Figuring out exactly when the higher bag fees apply can be confusing on both airlines.

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On the Spirit Airlines website there is no longer a link or notice spelling out the dates or pricing for peak travel surcharges.

Instead, said Berry, under the airline's "dynamic" bag-pricing structure, passengers enter their origination and destination cities and dates of travel and the website "lets you know the cost of your bags - which varies by destination - and if any $2 seasonal charges are included."

The pricing scheme at Frontier is even harder to decipher, as the higher baggage fee for peak travel periods is shown in the chart listing various fees for carry-ons and checked bags.

But an asterisked section at the bottom of its webpage outlining baggage policies and pricing alerts travelers to the existence of "Value Season Pricing," non-peak travel dates when prices decreaseby $5 or $10 for both carry-ons and checked bags when paid for during booking, Web check-in, at an airport kiosk or the ticket counter.

While the seasonal bag surcharges end up being relatively small, Airfarewatchdog's George Hobica said "they seem totally unnecessary."

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And although these airlines' fares are usually lower than other airlines, even for fliers who purchase numerous "optional" service charges, "it's really their poor service reputation that makes these increased fees an insult," he said.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, the 27 major U.S. airlines together earned more than $3.5 billion from baggage fees in 2014.

Spirit and Frontier were among the top earners on the list, checking in at Nos. 5 and 6, respectively, with $242 million and $145 million in earnings.

The DOT's most recent report for baggage fee revenues for 2015 covers the first two quarters and shows the two low-cost carriers holding onto their rankings, behind Delta, United, American and US Airways, which flew its last branded flight in mid-October.