4 outrageous airline fees and how to avoid them

Image: Unaccompanied minor at the airport
Fees for unaccompanied minors are nothing new, but the rise in this particular charge is unprecedented. Alaska Airlines recently jacked tis price from $30 to $75, and Sprint hiked its unaccompanied minor fee from $50 to $75. Lew Long / Corbis stock

The airlines don’t want you to read this.

They’d rather you fork one of the new surcharges they’ve dreamed up during the last few weeks. They want you to pay extra for your first checked bag, for drinkable water — even for “free” award tickets.

They don’t want you to know there’s another way. But there is.

Surcharges are not inevitable. À la carte pricing doesn’t have to send the price of your next vacation into the stratosphere. Really, it doesn’t.

Warning: The advice I’m about to give is no way sanctioned by the Air Transport Association, the airline trade group whose members evidently haven’t met a surcharge they don’t like. It is not endorsed by airline apologists masquerading as analysts, experts and pundits — the folks you see on TV foolishly arguing that new fees are essential to the airline industry’s survival. Nor does it reflect the views of many elite frequent fliers, who think it’s about time the “little people” sitting in the back of the plane paid more for their tickets.

No, they would not approve of what I’m saying. Which is all the more reason to say it.

Here are four outrageous new surcharges the airlines have imposed on us this summer — and how to avoid them.

US Airways is now charging for soft drinks. That includes bottled water. Yes, bottled water. The airline is completely unapologetic about the new charge. “We’ve chosen to be more aggressive than our competitors,” Doug Parker, the airline’s chief executive, told his employees in an internal memo. You can say that again, Doogie.

Few people have a problem with an airline charging for soft drinks. But water? Come on. Given the fact that the tap water they serve on planes is often not potable, that leaves us with few alternatives.

How to get around it: Bring an empty water bottle through the Transportation Security Administration screening area and fill it at the closest water fountain in the terminal. Remember, you can’t bring liquids through a checkpoint, but there’s no rule against empty containers. You can also buy bottled water inside the terminal, but that’s not an ideal solution. Those bottles may cost more than the ones you buy on the plane. There have been isolated reports of overly vigilant screeners confiscating empty bottles, but it’s still worth a try.

Checked luggage
Remember when you could check two or even three bags at no extra charge? Ah, the good ol’ days. But that’s history. Five airlines — American, United, US Airways, Northwest and Hawaiian — have announced plans to charge passengers for the first checked bag. The other carriers can’t be far behind.

Airlines insist they need the extra money to cover their fuel costs (here’s what United Airlines had to say when it added the fee) but this probably has almost nothing to do with higher energy prices. Airlines have been waiting for an excuse to add these extras for a long time, and when fuel prices come back down, these fees will almost certainly stick. Just wait and you’ll see.

How to get around it: A lot of so-called travel experts now recommend you send your luggage to your destination using either an overnight service or through one of the pricey luggage shipping companies. But that’s silly. Why ship your luggage when you can still carry it on the plane for free? If you have to carry a second bag, either fly on an airline with a free first-bag allowance, like Continental or Delta, or send the bag by second-day mail. And always do the math. A $15 charge for a bag might be a bargain compared with what the postal service charges.

Award tickets
Picture this: You’ve just won a gold medal at the Summer Games. But before you step up to the podium to receive your award, an official pulls you to the side and says you’ll have to pay a “processing fee” for the medal. Absurd? Yes. Unless you’re a frequent flier who wants to cash in some of your hard-earned miles.

This summer, airlines have upped their award ticket fees, adding “co-payments” for certain awards and raised the number of miles required for “free” tickets. For example, on Aug. 15, Delta Air Lines is adding a $25 “fuel surcharge” for award travel between the 50 states and Canada. And effective Oct. 1, American Airlines is charging a nonrefundable “co-payment” of $150 for upgrade awards used with certain fares between the U.S. and certain South American countries.

How to get around it: Cash in your frequent flier miles before the deadline or use your awards for something else. Award miles don’t appreciate over time, anyway. In fact, they lose value. So hoarding your points is not helpful. If you can’t do that — if you’re hopelessly addicted to miles, as many unfortunate souls are these days — then this may be a good time to focus your loyalty on a single program. The top-tier elite customers are exempt from many of these new charges.

Unaccompanied minors
Fees for unaccompanied minors are nothing new. But the rise in this particular charge is unprecedented, and as a parent, I’m calling for a reality check. Alaska Airlines jacked its price from $30 to $75 a few weeks ago. Spirit hiked its unaccompanied minor fee from $50 to $75. Not to be outdone, many legacy airlines raised their fees to $100, in some cases doubling them.

Again, many airlines blamed the rise in these fees on higher fuel costs. Which absolutely defies logic. How much more fuel does it cost to transport a featherweight unaccompanied minor, as opposed to, say, the average overweight American? Run the numbers. At $100 per flight, that’s an awfully expensive babysitter, considering that the going rate for a sitter is around $10 an hour.

How to get around it: Fly with junior this summer. If you’re sending two kids to visit the relatives, you might as well come along. You’ll pay the airline the equivalent in unaccompanied minor fees if you decide to stay home. Plus, you’ll be able to keep an eye on your offspring.

Of course, the best way around all of these fees is to fly on an airline that doesn’t have them. Southwest Airlines still allows you to check two bags at no extra charge. JetBlue still serves free drinks and snacks and charges $25 less than the big airlines for unaccompanied minors. Supporting these less fee-prone companies will hasten the inevitable demise of the airlines that erroneously believe they can surcharge their way back to a profit.

By the way, there’s plenty of evidence that the airlines are just getting started with their new fees. Once passengers are used to paying for beverages, checked luggage and “free” award tickets, it’s on to bigger and better things for the chronically mismanaged airline industry.

What’s next? No one knows.

And to be perfectly honest, I don’t think I want to.

Every Monday, my column takes a close look at what makes the travel business tick. are always welcome, and if you can’t get enough of my column, for daily insights into the world of travel.